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Jack Smith

The Big One is coming, tra-la, tra-la, and Angelenos don't shake or quake

October 02, 1986|JACK SMITH

We have received in the mail an "Earthquake Survival Guide" with the compliments of Supervisor Ed Edelman.

Edelman suggests that we hang it up on our walls and follow its tips.

He says: "Recent earthquakes in Southern California have reminded us that a large quake in our area could have a devastating impact."

He notes that "very powerful" earthquakes occur in California roughly every 140 years. "It has been 129 years since the last big quake."

The strange thing about us Angelenos is that we don't seem to worry about the Big One. Its imminent arrival is almost a certainty. Yet few of us move out in fear of it; few take any precautions; few even think about it.

In a recent article called "Waiting for the Big One," Discover magazine warned, "There is a 50% to 90% chance that a major quake will devastate Los Angeles in the next 50 years. It could happen in the year 2036. It could happen next week."

Discover's scenario for the Big One: "Between 3,000 and 14,000 people would die in Los Angeles, and from 12,000 to 55,000 would be so seriously injured that they would need to be hospitalized, but . . . a fourth of the hospitals might be knocked out. . . . Immediate property losses would total at least $20 billion."

Natural gas and petroleum lines would rupture. Fires would be widespread. Water would be scarce.

Despite the awful possibilities, we stay here--all of us Angelenos who are routinely described by Eastern journalists as laid-back hedonists, blissfully indifferent to life's hazards and realities.

There must be some truth in that caricature.

Considering how quickly people panic in disaster, it is strange how immune they are to its warning signs.

Says Caltech paleoseismologist Kerry Sieh: "The consensus is we're coming up on one huge earthquake."

Given our indifference to the inevitability of such a catastrophe, I wonder how many of us will hang Edelman's survival guide on our kitchen walls.

It has lists of what to do--before, during and after.

I have an idea that not one in 1,000 of the people this guide reaches will do any of the things suggested in the "before" list.

It includes knowing where and how to shut off electricity, gas and water at main switches and valves. How many of us could do that in a crisis? How many will go out and learn today?

It says bolt down and secure water heaters, gas appliances, refrigerators, heavy furniture, bookcases and shelves.

How do you bolt down a water heater, a refrigerator, a bookcase? Do you put the bolt through the floor? How do you attach the bolt to the appliance?

"Bottled and canned goods, china and other breakables should not be stored in high places or left where they can freely slide off shelves."

Where are we going to store them? All our shelves for canned goods and dishes are high. All our shelves for pots and pans, which are unbreakable, are low. Are we going to change? No. When the Big One comes, the family china is going to slide out of the shelves and shatter on the floor.

The water heater is going to break loose and spray hot water all over the kitchen. The refrigerator is going to slide across the kitchen and crash out the French doors. The main water line is going to burst, shooting up a geyser of precious water, and the main gas line is going to burst, releasing deadly fumes into the house.

"Prepare an Emergency Kit--enough to last 72 hours. Include: portable radio, flashlight, extra batteries, first-aid kit, first-aid book, medicines, fire extinguisher, adjustable wrench for turning off gas and water, bottled water, canned and dried food, non-electric can opener, portable stove and matches."

That is probably the easiest one to carry out. Most of us have some of those things already. But how many of us could find them in the dark? How many of us have them all in one place?

If the Big One comes at night, as it may, we are all going to be thrashing about our broken houses like Ben Turpin in a slapstick comedy, shouting at one another, looking for the flashlight, cutting our bare feet on shattered glass, and rushing to the telephone to call our loved ones across town.

"Don't use telephone except for medical, fire or public safety emergencies."

Almost everyone who lives in Los Angeles has relatives living somewhere else in the city. Whatever the rules, each of those families is going to be calling the other. And if they don't have relatives living in Los Angeles they will have relatives living in Minneapolis, or Little Rock, or Brooklyn, and those families will be calling Los Angeles to see if their loved ones are all right. There is no way anyone is going to stay off the phone, except that the entire telephone system will undoubtedly collapse.

"Do not drive except for an emergency."

As soon as they find out their phone doesn't work, and they don't know whether their relatives in Silver Lake or Gardena have survived, they will jump in their car and drive across town to find out. That will create the maddest traffic jam ever seen or imagined.

I don't know about you, but I'm going to start doing those "before" things today. I'm going to start by asking my wife how to turn off the water, gas and electricity. We've lived in the same house 36 years. She certainly ought to know by now.

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