Los Angeles Studies Katrina

As relief efforts for Katrina unfold, new questions about disaster preparedness in Southern California are surfacing. The San Andreas Fault runs for hundreds of miles through California, and a rupture could devastate several cities. Ina Jaffe reports on what Los Angeles is learning from the New Orleans catastrophe.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

Four years ago, FEMA identified the top disasters facing the United States--a terrorist attack in New York, a hurricane flooding New Orleans and a major earthquake on California's San Andreas fault; two down, one to go. And in light of the slow response to the New Orleans disaster, you just might wonder how prepared Los Angeles is for the big one. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE reporting:

They call it the big one for a reason, explains Lucy Jones of the US Geological Survey. The San Andreas fault segment likely to rupture in Southern California is 250 miles long.

Ms. LUCY JONES (US Geological Survey): To rupture that long a piece of the fault, you need a really long time. So the earthquake's going to be lasting for two minutes.

JAFFE: Compare that to LA's 1994 Northridge earthquake which lasted about 10 seconds, yet killed nearly 60 people and caused more than $40 billion worth of damage. The San Andreas quake would ravage communities that are close to it from Palmdale, north of LA, to San Bernardino and Palm Springs in the southern desert. The city of Los Angeles might get through it in relatively good shape, but there are several hundred active earthquake faults in Southern California, says Jones. Many are capable of producing large quakes. One of those runs right under LA's downtown.

Ms. JONES: The study of what was possible off of this fault suggested that it could cause damage in excess of a quarter of a trillion dollars.

JAFFE: We may not know when the next big quake's coming, but there's no mystery about where local communities would turn when it occurs.

Mr. LEE SAPADEN (Spokesman, LA County Office of Emergency Management): We're in the situation room of the county's Emergency Operation Center. And it is currently activated at a low level.

JAFFE: Lee Sapaden is a spokesman for LA County's Office of Emergency Management. At the moment, there are only three people working at the operation center which looks a bit like a smaller version of NASA's Mission Control. Located in East LA, the center is built to withstand an 8.3-magnitude quake. It coordinates efforts for the entire county of Los Angeles, while 88 cities, 10 million people and 4,000 square miles, but all the stuff that goes along with being a megalopolis can actually be quite useful in a disaster, says Sapaden. Take emergency food, for example.

Mr. SAPADEN: There's a warehouse for the school lunch program, and that's the food that would be available if we need that bulk food.

JAFFE: But it's not just the stuff that's here, says Sapaden. It's the system. Emergency workers throughout the state use the same bureaucratic terminology and organize resources in the same way. So if Los Angeles County needs help, let's say, from Oakland or Sacramento, everyone knows the drill and speaks the same language. California's record on other kinds of earthquake preparation is spotty, however. Highways and bridges have been strengthened, but many school buildings and hospitals have not. The US Geological Survey's Lucy Jones says a lot of the infrastructure that supports the LA area travels right over the San Andreas fault and that could use some upgrading, too.

Ms. JONES: So we're going to see, for instance, our natural gas pipelines that come across the fault at Cajon Pass, one side's now going to be 20 feet away from the rest. All of our water lines cross the fault within that area, most of the big freeways coming into LA, most of the railway lines. And so we could be looking at disruptions to the support infrastructure of the city, but it's just going to take many months to fix.

JAFFE: There's no question, says Jones, that the big one will come along some day. It's a matter of how much of a disaster we'll let it be.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Los Angeles.

STAMBERG: You're listening to MORNING EDITION.

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