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Fake 'Big One' hits Southland

Thousands take part in the Great Southern California Shakeout. Did the drill shake the region's complacency?

November 14, 2008|Jia-Rui Chong and Bob Pool

The blood and the broken bones were fake, just like the magnitude 7.8 "earthquake" that shook Los Angeles like a bowl of Jell-O for two long minutes Thursday.

In what was billed as the largest disaster drill ever in California, thousands of emergency responders, schoolchildren and office workers took part in the 10 a.m. pretend temblor.

But the question of whether or not the Great Southern California Shakeout actually shook Los Angeles from its quake complacency might only be apparent the day the "Big One" actually hits.

Under a script prepared by U.S. Geological Survey experts, other seismologists and computer programs, the drill supposed that a rupture of the San Andreas Fault occurred near the Salton Sea.

The shaking would be felt within seconds in Los Angeles and surrounding areas, experts said of the hypothetical quake. Interstate 10 at the San Gorgonio Pass would crack open. Some 300,000 buildings would sustain damage, including three skyscrapers that totally collapse in downtown Los Angeles. Office towers in Santa Ana and San Bernardino would also fall. The death toll would hit 1,800. An additional 50,000 would rush to emergency rooms.

"This is our equivalent of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco," said Lucy Jones, chief scientist for the drill. "The worst-case scenario would have required much larger computers."

Shaking would be worst close to the fault and in areas where there is a sedimentary basin, Jones said. One of the deepest parts of the Southern California basin is under Watts, where deep sediment would cause intense shaking.

Some of the measures that government agencies have implemented over the years will help limit damage in a big quake. Jones credited Caltrans with some of the most significant work on highways and bridges.

"It does not mean that all roads will be passable, but it does mean we probably won't have anyone die in a collapsed freeway," Jones said.

Because there was no actual shaking Thursday, the drill went unnoticed by most. Schools paid attention, however.

Freshman Anthony Salazar was in a Bishop Alemany High School geography class in Mission Hills when the "quake" hit.

The bell went off and an ear-piercing rumbling blared over the campus' loudspeaker system. "It sounded like the real thing," said the 14-year-old San Fernando resident. Along with classmates, he dropped his geography book and ducked under his desk. "They'd told us it would happen, but we didn't believe it," Anthony said.

According to the drill scenario, "the dining room had a major architectural collapse," said Alemany Principal Frank Ferry. Students with fake blood and bruises were taken to nearby Providence Holy Cross Medical Center.

Arturo Rivas looked bashed and bloody as he waited in his makeup to head for the hospital. "My parents would definitely freak out if they saw this," said the 17-year-old senior, a fake gash stretching across his forehead and part of his face and throat.

The supposedly "demolished" dining room was used as a disaster makeup room. Antoinette Hernandez, 17, of Tarzana was having a vivid patch of bloody "torn flesh" glued to her right arm by Terilynn Lillis, a Community Emergency Response Team volunteer from Santa Clarita who works with the L.A.Fire Department.

Under the scenario, three Alemany students were supposedly killed in the quake. Several teachers, including religion instructor Mary Killmond, were among those "severely injured" by falling debris. She lay "unconscious" on a lawn, covered by a thermal blanket. A nun, Sister Sara, held her hand as students looked on soberly.

There were also mock victims at Caltech in Pasadena. When found by campus security officers, they were shuttled in electric carts to a make-believe triage area. Bandaged student volunteers Thomas Heavey and Peter Buhler were victims of battery failure when their cart ran out of juice, leaving them stranded.

Some students and professors at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa welcomed the simulated quake as a cigarette break when classes were suspended for 10 minutes. An electronic sign urged everyone to "Stay Calm."

Others were oblivious. At Los Angeles City Hall, the drill coincided with a planning commission meeting. A guard told the packed audience of lobbyists and neighborhood activists to duck and cover. No one did.

At IndyMac Bank's offices in Pasadena, many were unaware of the mock disaster practice. Some employees of the once high-flying mortgage company, now taken over by regulators, were scheduled to do a drop drill, but officials barred observers. "No cameras allowed," IndyMac representative Dan Goodwin said.

At the Nestle USA headquarters in Glendale, a security official broadcast over an intercom an order for personnel to drop and cover. Most seemed to comply.

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