U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Lucy Jones remembers attending an emergency training session in August 2001 with the Federal Emergency Management Agency that discussed the three most likely catastrophes to strike the United States.
First on the list was a terrorist attack in New York. Second was a super-strength hurricane hitting New Orleans. Third was a major earthquake on the San Andreas fault.
Now that the first two have come to pass, she and other earthquake experts are using the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as an opportunity to reassess how California would handle a major temblor.
Jones, scientist-in-charge for the geological survey's Southern California Earthquake Hazards Team, and other experts generally agree that California has come a long way in the last two decades in seismic safety.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 10, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 75 words Type of Material: Correction
Earthquake risk -- An article Thursday in Section A about the earthquake risk in California referred to Fred Turner of the state Seismic Safety Commission as Frank Turner. The article also said a state report concluded that 7,500 school buildings would "perform poorly" in the event of a major quake. The actual quote from the report is that such buildings are "not expected to perform as well" as other buildings and "require detailed seismic evaluation."
In Los Angeles, all but one of 8,700 unreinforced masonry buildings -- considered the most likely to collapse in a major quake -- have been retrofitted or demolished. The state spent billions after the 1994 Northridge quake to retrofit more than 2,100 freeway overpasses, reporting this week that only a handful remain unreinforced.
Despite these improvements, however, officials believe that a major temblor could cause the level of destruction and disruption seen over the last week on the Gulf Coast.
More than 900 hospital buildings that state officials have identified as needing either retrofitting or total replacement have yet to receive them, and the state recently agreed to five-year extensions to hospitals that can't meet the 2008 deadline to make the fixes. More than 7,000 school buildings across the state would also be vulnerable during a huge temblor, a state study found, though there is no firm timetable for upgrading the structures.
And four Los Angeles Police Department facilities -- including the Parker Center headquarters in downtown -- worry officials, because they were built to primitive earthquake standards and might not survive a major temblor. Only two of the LAPD's 19 stations meet the most rigorous quake-safe rules.
"We could be dealing with infrastructure issues a lot like New Orleans," Jones said. "Our natural gas passes through the Cajon Pass.... Water -- three pipelines -- cross the San Andreas fault in an area that is expected to go in an earthquake." Railway lines are also vulnerable, she said.
A catastrophic temblor at the right spot along the San Andreas could significantly reduce energy and water supplies -- at least temporarily, she and others said. Researchers at the Southern California Earthquake Center said there is an 80% to 90% chance that a temblor of 7.0 or greater magnitude will strike Southern California before 2024.
"We aren't anywhere close to where I wish we were" in terms of seismic safety, Jones said.
Seismologists are particularly concerned about a type of vulnerable building that has received far less attention than unreinforced masonry.
There are about 40,000 structures in California made from "non-ductile reinforced concrete," a rigid substance susceptible to cracking. This was a common construction ingredient for office buildings in the 1950s and '60s, before the state instituted stricter standards. Few such structures have been seismically retrofitted, officials said.
Seismic safety advocates have also recently lost some major battles in Sacramento. The state rejected a proposal from the Seismic Safety Commission in the wake of the 2003 San Simeon earthquake to force owners of unreinforced masonry buildings to post warning signs. In that quake, two women died when the roof slid off of a two-story Paso Robles brick building where they worked.
Last week, the Legislature sent to the governor's desk a bill that encourages local governments to develop retrofitting programs for "soft story" wood-frame apartment buildings.
There are an estimated 70,000 such structures in the state, and experts worry that they could sustain major quake damage, because they often have tuck-under parking and lack solid walls at their bases.
The danger of this kind of construction was illustrated in the 1994 collapse of the Northridge Meadows apartment complex, in which 16 residents were killed.
There are other potential safety gaps as well.
Although Los Angeles, Long Beach, Pasadena and several other cities have reinforced almost all their masonry buildings, about a third of such structures across the state remain unprotected, said Frank Turner, an engineer with the Seismic Safety Commission.
A state study published last year on hazard reduction paints a sobering picture of California's earthquake danger. About 62% of the population lives in a zone of high earthquake danger, including 100% of the population of Ventura County, 99% of Los Angeles County and 92% of Riverside County.