Elementary school students Kourtney Downey, left, and Anthony Cornajo… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
For all the attention generated by the massive earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, experts in California remain skeptical that residents of this quake-prone region are any better prepared for the inevitable Big One.
California saw a rise in quake awareness and retrofitting after the state recorded a series of major temblors over seven years: Whittier in 1987, Loma Prieta in 1989 and Northridge in 1994. But there hasn't been a devastating temblor in the state since the Northridge quake, and experts are concerned that quake preparedness may have declined in recent years.
A recent survey by the Norman Lear Center at USC found that even those who have received earthquake education are not as prepared as they should be.
California has tried to raise awareness of quake dangers by holding an annual drill called the Great California ShakeOut. In the drill's first year, in 2008, thousands of participants played out what would happen in the event that a magnitude 7.8 quake struck along the San Andreas fault.
But the USC survey found that the majority of those participants still were not fully prepared for a quake and many have had inaccurate or out-of-date information about what to do in the event of a major temblor.
"We were surprised at how many people who had signed up for the drill were still answering those questions badly," said Johanna Blakley, deputy director of the Lear Center.
Blakley said that messages about what to do during a quake can be confusing. That is in part because earthquake preparedness comes with a host of messages, including calls for families to "get a plan," and for people to "drop, cover and hold on" when the ground is shaking.
In addition, many Southern Californians grew up with information that is now outdated. A suggestion to take cover under a doorway, once fairly common, is now considered applicable only to people in adobe structures. Everyone else should drop, cover and hold on, experts say, taking shelter under a sturdy desk or table, and holding on to one of its legs.
After the Northridge quake, residents across Southern California stocked up on supplies, bought earthquake kits, bolted down some vulnerable furniture and created family reunification plans.
But emergency services officials said they worry that Southern Californians have lost that sense of urgency, particularly as people change residences and forget to refresh supplies.
Chris Ipsen, an emergency preparedness coordinator for the city of Los Angeles, said that too often, people think that the government is going to take care of them when disaster strikes. But he said that's a false assumption.
"They may be stuck, there may be no responders able to get to them, the roads may be out . . . and then they realize, 'No one is coming to take care of me,' " he said.
The 8.8 Chilean quake is probably stronger than the Big One long expected to hit along the San Andreas. But a major California quake could do more damage because it would probably occur closer to population centers.
"Earthquakes really destroy the basic infrastructure of our society, especially in urban regions" said Tom Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center.
Because of the region's vast population and its sprawl, it's even more important for the infrastructure to be able to recover quickly, he said. That includes water distribution, power grids, roads and other methods of transportation. "We depend so much, in a place like Los Angeles, and Southern California, that it can be brought back into a functioning state as quickly as possible," Jordan said.
Sherry Heitz, the chief executive of Moorpark-based QuakeKare, which sells earthquake-preparedness kits, said that she has seen a bump in business in the wake of the Haiti and Chile quakes.
"The reality sets in when you see these poor people," Heitz said. "We can identify with them now. We can see this happening here, in L.A. It's such a vast area, and the type of earthquake that could happen here would stretch so many miles. While we have the rescue infrastructure, Los Angeles is so spread out. We really could be on our own for quite a long time."
Though California, like Chile, has stringent building codes that could preclude the high death toll seen in Haiti as a result of poor building construction, the ultimate price of a strong quake could be economic, Jordan said. In the simulated drill of the first Great ShakeOut, the 7.8 quake scenario came with a $200-billion price tag.
And that's why he believes that the ShakeOut drills are important.
He said he hopes that with each year, Californians will be more aware of what needs to be done.
"Part of the purpose of running ShakeOut exercises is to understand how the hammer blow of a large earthquake would fall, and how do we keep it from shattering our infrastructure, how do we make it more robust so that when these things happen, we rebound and recover as quickly as possible," Jordan said.