ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
It's morning recess at the St. Augustine Catholic School. Another sunny day here in Culver City, California. Kids running around in navy blue uniforms complete the idyllic scene. But away from the basketball hoops and the games of tag, the staff is preparing.
Custodian Billy Figueroa opens the metal doors to a large cargo container next to the playground. He points out some of the supplies.
BILLY FIGUEROA: OK. We have our water...
RATH: Enough water to last 300 people about five days.
FIGUEROA: We got duct tape, twine...
RATH: There's an axe and a shovel.
FIGUEROA: Also, we have our generator, gasoline for the generator.
RATH: All of these supplies are here just in case. Just in case the freeways are cut off or the power goes out. Just in case of a major destructive earthquake, because in Southern California and communities from St. Louis to Seattle, millions of Americans live in areas at risk for earthquakes. But experts say we have not taken the simple steps to protect ourselves. That's our cover story today: preparing for the big one.
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RATH: At exactly 10:17 a.m., principal Beate Nguyen comes over the loudspeaker.
BEATE NGUYEN: This is an earthquake drill. Drop, cover and hold on.
RATH: The kids tuck in their arms and legs, and take cover under their desks. They're part of the Great Shakeout, an earthquake drill with almost 20 million participants around the country.
NGUYEN: We are now leaving the building. Evacuate for the drill.
RATH: With the all-clear signal, the students - almost 300 of them - file out of their classrooms.
KIM OGDEN: Fourth grade, we're not talking. No talking, fourth grade.
RATH: And they arrange themselves in circles on the playground.
NGUYEN: Preschool, hand up if you're present.
RATH: On a beautiful day on a school playground, the danger can feel a little abstract. But Principal Nguyen says the drills are absolutely necessary.
NGUYEN: Hopefully, we are in a position to at least, you know, minimize the impact.
RATH: Minimize the impact, that's the goal. Craig Fugate is the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And when an earthquake hits, FEMA will respond, but individuals need to be ready.
CRAIG FUGATE: In large-scale, complex type events such as an earthquake, everybody needs to understand, you're just not going to be able to call 911 and somebody's going to show up immediately. So the more people are prepared, the better we're able to respond to those types of disasters.
RATH: And what's your sense then? Do you think that most individual Americans are prepared?
FUGATE: Unfortunately not as much as they need to. We know that when you talk about preparedness, a lot of people identify certain steps they've taken. But as we saw with Sandy and we've seen with other events, the better prepared that people are to take care of themselves, the more we can focus on the heavy-impact areas and the people without resources. Generally, an earthquake's going to occur, your first indications will be the shaking and you feel it, you need to know what to do.
And what most experts recommend, what we recommend is don't try to evacuate out of the building. You can get injured as things are falling. The best thing to do is to drop, get low, get under something heavy duty like a table or something and cover your head and wait for the shaking to stop. And then if the building's damaged, then evacuate and go outside.
RATH: Because in areas around the country with significant fault lines, it's not a question of if an earthquake might strike, but when. And it turns out that is a tough question to answer.
DR. LUCY JONES: I don't see us being able to say there'll be an earthquake Thursday at 3 o'clock.
RATH: That's Dr. Lucy Jones. She's the senior science advisor for risk reduction at the U.S. Geological Survey, the USGS. And Jones says scientists are close to proving one thing: that we might as well give up on predicting earthquakes.
JONES: The reason is you don't want me to predict every earthquake. What you want me to do is predict the one out of 50,000 that's large enough to do damage. So you're wanting a prediction of the magnitude as well as the time, and that's where the problem lies, because as much as we can tell right now, the big and the small earthquakes begin the same way.
They all begin by slipping on a very small part of the fault. And a small earthquake runs into something that stops it right away. A big earthquake gets past the nearby stuff and propagates down the fault and happens over that big surface before it runs into something that stops it. And as far as we can tell, every earthquake has some chance of pushing on down the fault, but only a very small number of them do.
RATH: So the when part of it is hard. But with these probabilities, can we have any sense of where they'll tend to hit or how damaging they'll be when they hit?
JONES: We can tell you a lot about where. So the U.S. Geological Survey publishes what are called the national seismic hazard maps. And they show you what are the more dangerous places and the less dangerous places. And, you know, Los Angeles and San Francisco are big red blobs because we have lots of faults. And they will tell you the pattern of earthquakes on the long run.
The other thing we can do really well is tell you what will happen when the earthquake does occur. We have a pretty good handle on, you know, if the earthquake happened tomorrow, what are going to be the half a dozen really critical sort of issues?
RATH: One of the reasons we know that is from experience.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good evening, everybody. It was 30 seconds that seemed like an eternity. To say that this part of the world has been badly shaking is more than a play on words.
RATH: Just after 4 a.m. on January 17, 1994, a magnitude 6.7 earthquake struck Northridge, a neighborhood in northern Los Angeles. This is how ABC News reported the scene.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The quake lasted at most 30 seconds, but that was enough to snap water mains and gas lines like straws, triggering fires that destroyed entire neighborhoods throughout the San Fernando Valley.
RATH: More than 50 people died in the earthquake and its aftermath. Thousands were injured. It was the most destructive in the U.S. in the past century. Lucy Jones says we learned a lot from that earthquake, but society has changed a lot since then.
JONES: I mean, that earthquake is almost 20 years ago now. Our biggest unknown is what'll be the impacts from a disruption to telecommunications. For instance, we don't have any regulations about the seismic securing of cellphone towers. And we don't really know how many of the cellphone towers will still be up after the earthquake. Another big issue is that we used to - at the time of Northridge, we had substantial food stockpiles, because that's the way grocery stores operated.
Now we run on a just-in-time economy and everything's brought in the day that it's needed. And we no longer have the big warehouses that we had at that point. I find a certain level of concern at what new vulnerabilities have we built into the system with all of these efficiencies that have come from the development of the Internet economy.
RATH: One issue that has come up again and again is construction. And today, buildings must be made to withstand severe shaking, but no building code is retroactive. So there are a lot of buildings in earthquake-prone cities that aren't up to modern code and might collapse. And here in Los Angeles, one of the biggest problems is buildings made of concrete.
RON LIN: Concrete buildings, for one, are very large, and they have a lot of people in them.
RATH: This is Ron Lin. He's a reporter for the L.A. Times. And he and his colleagues have been looking into the number of buildings at risk.
LIN: And what it is about these buildings is that they don't have enough steel reinforcement bars in them or steel rebar in them. I mean, if you think about a column of clay and you kind of push down on both sides, the clay wants to expand out. But if you wrap that clay in column of pencils, that would keep the clay in it. And that's what the steel reinforcement does. It keeps the concrete column whole during its shaking.
RATH: The L.A. Times looked into major concrete structures around the city. They pulled records and talked to owners of dozens of properties.
LIN: Many of these concrete buildings that are out there haven't been looked at by seismic engineers and also haven't been retrofitted. And that's one of the things that a lot of structural engineers tell us is that the collapse of just one of these buildings could kill more people than in any of the catastrophes California has seen since the 1906 earthquake.
RATH: I'm just wondering, why did it take a newspaper like the L.A. Times to look into this? You couldn't just go and find, like, the facts and figures from the city or a state agency?
LIN: Well, there's been a lot of resistance to creating such a list. In the past, the city has had numerous attempts at trying to make a list. And whenever these proposals came up, property owners were really opposed to doing a list. And so the proposals to figure out where these buildings were have always died.
RATH: This is a problem in Southern California, where quakes are a big part of people's lives. But there's also significant risk up and down the West Coast as well as the Midwest and other regions. Lucy Jones says it's true that earthquakes are less frequent outside major hot spots.
JONES: But because of that, the communities are much less prepared for them. So, you know, the magnitude 5.8 in Virginia in 2011, you know, was actually felt by more people than any American earthquake. A relatively small earthquake that would have caused very little problem in California causes substantial damage in these less prepared regions.
RATH: But Dr. Jones says it's important to put the risk in perspective. She says she's constantly getting messages from people who are scared.
JONES: My favorite one was a letter where someone said: I know you can't tell me when the next earthquake's going to be, but will you tell me when your children go to visit out-of-town relatives? And there's that belief that, you know, somehow the scientists know something because it's, in fact, the lack of knowledge, the unpredictability that makes earthquakes as frightening as they are.
In fact, we tend to be more afraid of earthquakes than is really justified by the risks they pose to us compared to other risks. Flooding is just as dangerous as earthquakes, but you don't find people scared of the rain. We're scared of things we don't see. We're scared of things that we don't know when they're coming, and we're scared of things that we think science doesn't understand.
RATH: And here's a little bit of good news: The science is getting better. A project is under way in California to provide an early warning system for earthquakes. It might give people a few moments, maybe even a minute to ready themselves. That might not sound like much, but it's enough time to get under a table, to turn off dangerous machinery or for a surgeon to stop cutting. Because when an earthquake does strike, every second will count.
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RATH: And if you're still wondering if the scientists know something they're not telling, Dr. Jones is a fourth generation Californian, and she says she has no plans to move.
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RATH: This is NPR News.