Helicopters, dozens of them, rising like a flock of frightened birds from a quivering landscape, would be the first signs of response if a major rush-hour earthquake struck Southern California.
Whining over paralyzed freeways, sharing the sky with plumes of smoke from flash fires on the ground, the darting aircraft would scatter to pick up officials responsible for protecting public safety and managing the region's recovery.
As airborne ferries and aerial spotters, as firefighting aircraft and emergency rescue ambulances, these helicopters would climb off helipads from Van Nuys to San Diego to become essential links in the region's mobilization.
Richard B. Dixon, Los Angeles County's chief administrator, would meet one of the helicopters on the roof of the Hall of Administration or at a park near his home.
Capt. Gary Snelson, chief of the emergency operations bureau for the Sheriff's Department, would meet his assigned helicopter on the roof of Methodist Hospital in Arcadia. Destination for both Snelson and Dixon: the county's earthquake command post in East Los Angeles.
Other helicopter crews would deliver Orange County disaster officials to the basement of the Santa Ana Civic Center.
Then would begin the task of assessing damage and allocating rescue, recovery and cleanup resources. Every agency--from cities to counties to harbor districts--has its own custom-designed earthquake response plan.
In the city of Los Angeles, the plan calls for Mayor Tom Bradley, Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and about two dozen department heads to hunker down in a high-tech bunker four floors below the east wing of City Hall, a facility equipped with steel doors, flashing lights, communications gear, tracking maps, cots and extensive supplies of food and water.
"Realistically, we don't know how many of these (officials) would survive a major quake and how many could make it downtown," said Anton Calleia, Bradley's chief administrative assistant.
Lower-level city employees would be dispatched to outlying emergency centers. Rescue work would fall to firefighters. Police would be assigned to maintain civil order. Parks and recreation officials would open shelters. More than 70 building inspectors would fan out on foot to assess damage to about 1,000 of the city's most vulnerable buildings.
Because of the likelihood of death, injury and family emergencies, personnel officials would work from a list of five city employees for each job. One City Hall office would be responsible for dispatching citizen volunteers to help man police and fire stations and other government offices.
Helicopter pilots would check from the air for damaged freeways, refineries, dams and buildings, as police cars drove gingerly down debris-strewn streets.
Sheriff's deputies would check major facilities in their areas, including hospitals, schools, banks, utilities and others that might require assistance. At the county's 20 sheriff's stations, watch commanders would evaluate their own buildings and telephone nearby cities for local damage reports.
In Orange County, the task would be only slightly less difficult, as officials tried to coordinate relief efforts with representatives in 28 cities scattered across 786 square miles. The condition of the San Onofre nuclear power plant in North San Diego County would be an especially urgent concern.
Department heads would staff a command post deep in the belly of the Civic Center. "A lot of thought has already been given to what could happen here," said Orange County government spokeswoman Helen Lotos. "We have 2.2 million people to consider."
The nature of the response would largely depend on where the quake hit. The two most hazardous faults in Southern California are the San Andreas, which borders its most densely populated areas and runs along the backside of the San Gabriel Mountains, and the smaller Newport-Inglewood Fault, which runs through crowded neighborhoods and commercial centers in Orange and Los Angeles counties from Newport Beach to Long Beach and north to Beverly Hills.
Officials say it would be impossible to assist many people in the immediate aftermath of the quake. Streets would remain clogged with fallen power lines and other debris. Gas and electricity service might not be restored for days. And phone service would remain crippled. Many of the people lacking the essentials, such as food and water, would be left to fend for themselves as officials dealt with rescue operations, mass deaths and breakdowns in the area's infrastructure.
Coordination of services and activation of the Emergency Broadcast Network, which would broadcast emergency information on commercial radio stations, would be handled by members of the Southern California Earthquake Preparedness Project in Pasadena. The group would assess damages and provide assistance to local governments. It would also help run disaster aid offices in the weeks after the quake.