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Regional Report : PASADENA : Preparedness Group Shaken Into Action


It's an unfortunate fact of life in Southern California: The next major earthquake could be centered under your town. What do you do if you live in the next Northridge?

If you reside on a particular street in northwest Pasadena, you swing into action. You know that block lieutenant Louis Jefferson will make sure than someone checks on Selma Stevens, 72, who is partially paralyzed with back problems, and her 73-year-old husband, Booker.

Block captain Henreen Nunley would immediately dispatch an able body to help another resident who lives alone and recently had triple-bypass surgery.

Red rags would fly in the yards of houses where someone is injured; first-aid teams would be dispatched to those houses. A shrill whistle would signal that someone is trapped.

Ernie Duke and Michael Mims would make the rounds to shut off leaking gas and water lines all along the street. Emergency supplies could last the residents two weeks without any outside help.

Thanks to resident Bunny Wilson, she and her neighbors would have a fighting chance in a major earthquake. Wilson took one look at the trauma and confusion sparked by the Northridge earthquake and realized that the city and county could not provide all the needed lifesaving actions. Neighborhoods would have to fend for themselves.

"The worst can happen," Wilson said. "We think about the worst-case scenario and work our way backward. It's as if Los Angeles doesn't exist, that there is no fire department, no police department. . . . People are going to have to understand that if there is a major earthquake, we are on our own."

The 43-year-old businesswoman and mother sent out flyers and rallied neighbors to the first meeting of the Prepared Block Assn. on Jan. 29. Twenty-five members of the street's 43 households showed up. Since then, participation has grown to more than 90%.

The effort already has brought unforeseen benefits to this racially mixed street. A block of neighbors, who for the most part never knew each other's names, have found a new sense of community and caring for each other.

"I think it's filling a void in every neighbor's heart--that they wanted to get to know their neighbors but didn't know how," Wilson said. "We have the best block in L.A."

The block realized that preparing for the worst also meant providing for those like Selma Stevens, who might require help getting to safety, and for those who might need immediate emergency attention in the critical hours after the quake--when the city is paralyzed with confusion and communications are inconsistent.

Organizers inventoried the block's strengths, weaknesses and schedules. Residents filled out forms charting household members, daily routines, special needs, and talents and tools that could be offered.

Households also plotted the locations of cut-off valves for water, gas and electricity. This information was distributed to the eight block lieutenants who are responsible for six- to seven-house sections, and the block captain.

Armed with this information, the block association now knows who would need what, where and when in an emergency situation, and who on the block can get it to them. After the earthquake, the block lieutenants are supposed to assess damage and report to Nunley, the block captain, by two-way radio. Nunley will then dispatch search-and-rescue teams as needed.

When things stop shaking, and everyone's emergency needs have been met, the block has organized a security patrol to keep looters and criminals at bay so their "city within a city," can survive intact until more permanent rescue and recovery arrives.

Ardith Duke, a homemaker with a 3-year-old, said she was the type who would scream and run through the house in panic during an earthquake. Now she is a block lieutenant. "There's no fear because I'm prepared," Duke said. "Now, you just take action."

Wilson and Nunley are quick to credit an outsider, Ted Wright, with helping the block transform from frightened to prepared. "We would have done what we were doing had we not met Ted," Wilson said. "What Ted Wright brought to us is expertise."

Wright is a British-born, self-described "back-yard survivalist." The spry 71-year-old said he outlasted the Nazi bombings of London by living in a back-yard bomb shelter for seven months. The Lancaster resident had been preaching preparedness ever since a minor earthquake in 1980 made him realize that despite the London Civil Defense Force training he received as a rescue volunteer, he was woefully unprepared for a major earthquake.

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