Toxic gas billows from dozens of plants and factories. Sewage spews into the streets and floods the ocean by the millions of gallons. And flames roar out of control, as fire hoses and hydrants run out of water.
Those dark scenes might have descended on Los Angeles in last month's earthquake were it not for years of planning, scores of technological advances and several billion dollars in public works improvements, officials said.
Although dozens of deaths and devastating property damage understandably have received the most attention since the quake, many government officials, business people and others said residents should take some comfort in the calamities that were averted.
Los Angeles' power, water, sewage and toxic control systems functioned almost flawlessly after the quake, and based on that experience, many officials are cautiously optimistic those key services will survive the much-anticipated Big One as well.
When Southern California was throttled at 4:31 a.m. on Jan. 17, power was lost throughout the city. That could have been disastrous for a city sewer system that carries nearly half a billion gallons of waste every day. But the system shifted almost seamlessly into emergency mode.
Backup generators have been installed at most of the 54 pumping stations along 6,500 miles of sewer lines to keep waste flowing even during power outages. And an internal power station was built at the Hyperion Treatment Plant, the oceanside facility in Playa del Rey that processes three-quarters of the 435 million gallons of sewage created in the city each day.
The work was part of court-ordered improvements to reduce the pollutants dumped into Santa Monica Bay--a $3.5-billion reconstruction job that is 60% complete.
The key to the emergency response was the Hyperion plant, which switched to the internal power system fueled by methane gas and dried sewage sludge.
"We didn't miss a beat," said Sam Furuta, assistant director of the city's Bureau of Sanitation. "The internal power system came on and kept powering us throughout the incident."
With the plant still on-line, it was able to serve its intended purpose as the backstop for two other sewage plants that do not have emergency generators. More than 37 million gallons of effluent was diverted from the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in the Sepulveda Basin and the Los Angeles-Glendale Water Reclamation Plant near Griffith Park. Those facilities had to shunt waste to Hyperion for half a day until they regained power.
If Hyperion had lost all power, the outcome would have been much worse. The plant would have been down for at least an hour and 45 minutes, long enough that it would have been forced to dump about 25 million gallons of sewage into Santa Monica Bay with only minimal treatment, public works engineers said.
Instead, the city system lost just 300 gallons, from a single sewer main that was crushed in southwest Los Angeles. The new backup generators, installed at pumping plants around the city, helped avert much larger spills.
"That prevented sewage from literally flowing in the streets," said Mark Gold, staff scientist for the environmental group Heal the Bay and a frequent critic of the sewer system. "That would have created a much greater risk of some sort of public health outbreak."
Southern California's major water supplier, the Metropolitan Water District, also relied on new technology and innovation to weather the earthquake.
MWD officials feared that in a major catastrophe they would have to wait in line with other customers to order new pipe to replace damaged lines. They also worried that the makers of giant main lines were so distant that they could not deliver to Southern California promptly.
So, after the 1971 Sylmar quake, the giant agency created its own pipe-making plant.
With its own facility and metal supplies in La Verne when the quake hit, the MWD was able to fabricate and replace in just a day, two critical, seven-foot-diameter sections of pipe that had been damaged at the MWD's Jensen Pumping plant in the San Fernando Valley.
Without that pipeline, much of the Valley would have been without water within about 72 hours, when reservoirs' supplies would have run low.
The other major supplier, the city's Department of Water and Power, suffered breaks in its two aqueducts that feed the Valley. With the MWD back in service so quickly, water was routed to all customers except those who suffered local damage to mains running under city streets.
"We saw the potential for this problem in 1971," said Richard Balcerzak, assistant general manager. "This is a cheap solution, and one that really paid off."
Another innovation may have prevented even further damage at the Jensen facility in Granada Hills--a critical transmission point for water in the California Aqueduct.