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Prepare for a quake? L.A.'s too busy

Though it doesn't take much effort to gather the items needed for an earthquake kit, few people have done it.

September 14, 2008|Chip Jacobs | Special to The Times

Newlyweds receiving a wedding gift from Stacy Gerlich these days can expect a little disaster when they unwrap her present. The Los Angeles Fire Department captain forsakes the traditional toaster oven or personalized bric-a-brac, instead stuffing backpacks with goggles, bottled water, toilet paper and other earthquake-survival items.

"Ten out of 15 couples said it was the best gift they've ever received," said Gerlich, who heads the department's Community Emergency Response Training, a seven-week disaster-training program for city residents.

If every Southern Californian invited her to their weddings, the region would be a safer place.

Even as the area rebounded from this summer's Chino Hills earthquake, which jangled nerves but caused little property damage, local disaster experts remain apprehensive about homeowners' overall readiness to survive a massive temblor. There's good reason, too.

This year, a group of state and federal scientists, including personnel from the U.S. Geological Survey, released an authoritative, if chilling, prediction: There's a 67% chance the Los Angeles area will experience a magnitude 6.7 or stronger quake sometime during the next 30 years. Information can be found at The destructive 1994 Northridge quake rated a 6.7.

Scientists say their estimates are getting sharper, and emergency personnel sure wish the population would take heed.

A just-completed survey of Americans' readiness for a terrorist strike, which researchers consider one barometer of Californians' earthquake preparedness, stamped an exclamation point on that concern. Of the 412 Los Angeles County residents participating in the survey, which the U.S. Department of Homeland Security helped fund and the UCLA School of Public Health oversaw, just 37% responded that they had emergency plans in place.

Even fewer -- 27% -- said they had purchased items to make themselves safer. Half said they had squirreled away supplies -- a statistic the researcher who shepherded the study cautioned was deceptive because someone who purchased a few canned goods might say he or she was ready.

Developing a family disaster-evacuation and communication plan; stocking emergency supplies in your home, car and workplace; and having a clear understanding of the probable hazards around you in a crisis are the building blocks of preparation, officials say. Because fires, disrupted utilities, collapsed structures and compromised highways are likely to monopolize emergency personnel during a major quake, residents should be self-sufficient for three days.

"When there is no disaster Monday through Sunday and people pick up the phone to call 911, the fire department will be there," Gerlich said. "But following a big disaster, you're on your own for 72 hours. When we have the next earthquake, we are going to be dependent on how well we've prepared ourselves and our family.

"Would you rather hear the truth than a lie?"

Gerlich and her colleagues are well aware that the window of opportunity that opens after a small rattler to coax residents to secure their homes can rapidly shrink to a porthole. Since the Northridge quake, only about 4,000 Angelenos a year -- or roughly 0.1% of the city's estimated 4 million population -- have undergone the Community Emergency Response Training program offered for free by the Fire Department.

Asked if they were ready for a magnitude 7 or higher quake in a recent online poll by the Pasadena Star-News, about 83% of respondents said no.

"Homeowners don't see preparedness as being important in their daily life," said Carol Parks, chief of community preparedness for Los Angeles' Emergency Management Department. "They know they need to do it but say they'll get around to it later."

As history shows, persuading homeowners to brace themselves requires more than government agencies nagging them with checklists and scary facts. Warning people about strapping heavy furniture to the walls or keeping extra medications on hand doesn't mean thousands will.

Though previous outreach relied on periodic public service announcements, the latest regional campaign revolves around consistent nudging -- in bill mailers and brochures, on websites and from community leaders. It's also about reminding people that assembling and maintaining their family survival kit takes neither a large time commitment nor a mogul's ATM card.

"If you went home today and took a roll of toilet paper, a roll of paper towels, a flashlight, some water and some food, and you store that in a place where you'll have access in an emergency, you'd be three steps ahead of where you are now," Gerlich said.

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