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The Big One

October 12, 1989|STEVE EMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine that you are safely settled in a comfortable chair, about to read a national news magazine. Imagine also that the cover stories report the occurance of what scientists have long predicted--a major earthquake in Southern California.

What follows is the kind of narrative that would likely appear. It is a look into the future, based on opinions from more than 20 industry and government experts and findings from a recent state geological report that bears this disturbing conclusion--a major quake along a lesser-known fault stretching from Orange County to Los Angeles would cause more damage and loss of life than an even greater quake on the San Andreas. Such strong, prolonged shaking in such a densely populated area, the report warns, "poses one of the greatest hazards to lives and property in the nation."

But once the shaking stops, what will Orange County look like? This account by Times staff writer Steve Emmons opens on the third day after the disaster that we all hope never happens--but quite possibly will.

Imagine that you are safely settled in a comfortable chair, about to read a national news magazine. Imagine also that the cover stories report the occurance of what scientists have long predicted--a major earthquake in Southern California.

What follows is the kind of narrative that would likely appear. It is a look into the future, based on opinions from more than 20 industry and government experts and findings from a recent state geological report that bears this disturbing conclusion--a major quake along a lesser-known fault stretching from Orange County to Los Angeles would cause more damage and loss of life than an even greater quake on the San Andreas. Such strong, prolonged shaking in such a densely populated area, the report warns, "poses one of the greatest hazards to lives and property in the nation."

But once the shaking stops, what will Orange County look like? This account by Times staff writer Steve Emmons opens on the third day after the disaster that we all hope never happens--but quite possibly will.

EARTHQUAKE

Death Toll Hits 300; Damage at $20 Billion

By STEVE EMMONS

TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA--Three days after the most destructive earthquake in United States history, authorities in Orange County were only beginning to gain ground in a recovery effort that could extend for months--or years.

So far, more than 300 dead have been recorded. But the total could reach 400 if many of the critically injured survivors of an industrial chlorine spill die as expected.

Rescue workers said they could only guess at the numbers of injured who have walked, driven or been brought to hospitals and open-air clinics set up in parks and on golf courses. Some have already been airlifted to medical centers throughout the Southwest. The injured will probably number in the tens of thousands, one spokeswoman said.

Property damage in Orange County alone is expected to approach $20 billion. To the north in Los Angeles County, where the average age of buildings is greater, damage was estimated at nearly $40 billion, and officials expected the death toll there to reach as high as 4,400.

Even seasoned emergency workers expressed astonishment at the scale of the disaster. The tone was somber at staging areas where they returned from the field.

"We've never had to deal with anything of this magnitude," said one high-level planner. "It's bigger than anything anyone has had to deal with."

The approximately 7.3-magnitude quake, which struck at 7:41 a.m. Monday, shook for 25 seconds and was followed by a brief but powerful aftershock at 12:22 p.m. Seismologists say more potentially destructive aftershocks are expected, perhaps for a month.

Emanating from the Newport-Inglewood fault that runs near the Pacific coast from Newport Beach north to Beverly Hills, the quake concentrated its worst destruction in multimillion-dollar residential and business districts close to shore.

Coastal cities from Newport Beach to Seal Beach, virtually isolated since the quake struck, are just now starting to receive scattered telephone service and trucked-in water and food. But the problems of raw sewage bubbling up in streets and the lack of running water and electricity is likely to persist for days, authorities said. The lack of natural gas, which must be restored particularly carefully, could extend for weeks.

The consensus of relief officials was that about half the people in hard-hit areas were coping well with the trauma, a fourth remained in a daze of disbelief and another fourth seemed emotionally crippled by shock.

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