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PREPARING FOR THE BIG ONE : More Southern Californians Take Action as a Scary Earthquake Shakes Up an Industry

January 23, 1988|LYNN SMITH, Times Staff Writer

As a geology student at Texas A&M University, Michele McCormick learned her lessons about California's shifting tectonic plates and continental shelf. She had seen the seismographic charts and the map of active faults underground that resembled the freeways above. If that weren't enough, her instructor advised the class: "If any of you move to California, you're crazy."

She came anyway, of course, settled into a place with a view of the shimmering Pacific and slipped into denial.

Now a Newport Beach psychologist, McCormick estimates she stayed in denial--a peculiarity of the California character--for the next eight years.

The Oct. 1 earthquake jolted her back to reality. "I'm not into denial about the earthquake anymore," she said. "I'm afraid of it."

Likewise, Jack and Cathy Subar had meant to prepare for the earthquake when they moved last September from Dallas to Irvine. But they forgot. When it came, Cathy said, "it felt like I was standing on top of waves and they were moving." She panicked at the thought of her children, though they were safely on the bus for school. Jack was in the shower, and over the rattling of the door, she screamed, "Get the kids!"

The experience shook her emotionally for several weeks, she said.

Within days, both the Subars and McCormick had created their own disaster plans and spent hundreds of dollars on earthquake kits--packs of disaster supplies with items such as flashlights, water jugs, light sticks (chemical tubes that glow in the dark when snapped), transistor radios, Mylar blankets, vacuum-packed C rations, lime for sanitation, gauze sponges and surgical tape. Most items have a five-year shelf life.

"I added fruit bars, granola bars, three or four days' worth of medicine my daughter and I take," Cathy Subar said. "We have the flashlight you can hook on to your belt, packets of water, an extra pair of running shoes in case we're caught unprepared on the highway, an extra sweater, matches you can use when wet. . . . medical kits, tablets for purifying water. We always keep gas tanks half full."

She believes the Big One will come sooner rather than later. "I feel it's not if, but when," she said.

Unlike the Subars and McCormick, most Orange County workers and residents are still unprepared, disaster officials say. But partly as a result of the Whittier quake, more procrastinators--significantly those who have recently moved from out of state--are now ready for the Big One --an 8.3 earthquake on the San Andreas Fault, or, what scientists believe poses a more likely danger for Orange County, a 7.5 quake on the Newport-Inglewood Fault, an active fault which runs along the county's coastline.

Vendors of earthquake preparedness supplies have seen business soar. After years of struggling to persuade Southern Californians to invest in water pouches and freeze-dried raisins and 10-year batteries, they now say they may turn a profit this year.

Oct. 2, business at the Western Earthquake Readiness warehouse in Santa Ana jumped 3,000%, said Kathy Gannon, founder. "At the end of October, I'd done the equivalent of 30 months," she said. The store sells customized earthquake kits with three-day supplies in a $150 Family Kit, a $60 Auto Kit, a $225 Corporate Kit (for an office of 10) and a $45 Fanny Pack which can fit in a desk.

The packs can include battery-less wind-up radios, fire extinguishers, wrenches with directions for turning off the home gas line and four-ounce water pouches. (Some of those unfamiliar with disaster supplies have wondered whether the small package contains powdered water to which they need to add water, Gannon said.)

Schools are buying supplies and "I've seen corporate business accelerate," Gannon said. "Companies are saying, we can be liable if we don't have enough water for three days."

Even a novelty spinoff, the Yuppie Earthquake Survival Kit, sold so well over the holidays that it launched a whole product line for its creators, two Los Angeles actors. The $120-briefcase was packed with Romanoff Caviar, Ile de France pate, Aulsebrooks Water Crackers, Stolichnaya vodka, Dunhill cigarettes, Tylenol, a first-aid kit, a wrench and a transistor radio.

Disaster officials say Southern Californians who regard earthquakes as a novelty are living in a fantasyland in which a major earthquake, with flattened buildings, shattered glass and toxic clouds, won't happen to them. Or if it does, that paramedics, firefighters, hospitals, all utilities and McDonald's will still be there to help them out.

In fact, "with an 8.3, where we're close to the epicenter, we know we won't have police and fire (for at least 72 hours), and we will lose 60% of our hospital beds and the technology that goes with it," said Dale Brown, program coordinator of the Orange County Fire Department's Emergency Management Division.

"Native Californians are hard to sell," he said. "We tend to get smug and say, 'Hey, it's no big deal.'

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