If the "Big One"--an earthquake of 8 or more on the Richter Scale--hits Southern California, knocking out roads and rail lines, one of few avenues open for emergency relief may be the sky.
So more than 1,000 disaster relief workers and volunteers converged on Los Angeles International Airport Wednesday for a dry run at how they will use the airfield as Southern California's lifeline to the rest of the world.
"This will be an island of hope when everything else is collapsing around your ears," said Ernie McIntosh, an inspector with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Doctors, firemen, police, military and airport personnel bandaged, transported and, in a few cases, declared dead some of the more than 200 volunteer "casualties"--mostly students from Santa Monica College and members of the Civilian Air Patrol made-up with simulated, but very real-looking wounds.
They used helicopters, ambulances, buses and fire trucks to bring victims in and loaded some borrowed jet aircraft to simulate their evacuation. Doctors from Long Beach were taxied into the drill site at the west end of the airport's runway by a Delta Airlines jet.
'Teams Flown In'
"We will have emergency teams flown in from around the country . . . and casualties flown out," said John Smith, superintendent of operations at the airport and the architect of Monday's exercise.
In a real emergency, disaster medical teams would be flown in from as far away as Atlanta and a nationwide computer system based in St. Louis would direct outgoing victims to cities with hospitals having the necessary specialities.
The drill, which coordinated more than 20 federal, state and local government agencies and private relief organizations, has been planned for a year. It took on added importance in the aftermath the Whittier quake two weeks ago.
"The earthquake gave it a little more realism," said airport spokeswoman Virginia Black.
The exercise scenario was based on the assumption that an 8.3 earthquake hit Southern California in the early morning wiping out all major highways, rail lines, communications systems and power facilities.
After that, the experts assumed, the hospitals would begin filling up and that's when the airlift would get going.
"We're supposed to be a bad neighbor, because of traffic and noise," said Smith. "But in an emergency, we're the only way out."
Supply of Water, Power
The airport also would probably be one of the few places with electrical power and water. The airport has its own power generating systems and fuel to last 10 days. It has a 2 million-gallon supply of fresh water and 7 million gallons of jet fuel on hand, even if its three fuel pipelines from the outside are severed.
And the 1,500-man maintainence crew, Smith said, can repair just about any damage to the runways and other airport facilities. A major fissure in the main runway, in fact, was a part of Wednesday's drill.
The operation, with hundreds of uniformed and bandaged people and a score of vehicles on the Tarmac occasionally looked like well-organized confusion.
"Actually, it (went) very smoothly for an interagency operation," said Anthony Norman, senior paramedic with the Los Angeles Fire Department.