Is LA Ready For A Big Earthquake? : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money Last week's California quakes have reinforced fears of "the big one", the high-magnitude trembler that seismologists say is inevitable. How ready is the city of Los Angeles?

Is LA Ready For A Big Earthquake?

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Last week, Southern California was hit by two major earthquakes. There was some property damage, but the center of each earthquake was not in an area with a big, dense population. And so, thankfully, the quakes did not cause any deaths.


But someday - and it really could be any day now, according to scientists - a much bigger earthquake will hit Los Angeles directly. Someday, the tectonic plates along the southern San Andreas Fault will shift and send out massive shockwaves and wreak havoc on one of the most important cities in the world, killing an estimated 1,800 people and injuring another 50,000.

VANEK SMITH: So I used to live in Los Angeles. I lived there for years. And there's always this worry when you live there - this low-grade worry about the big one hitting and when it's going to hit and about the devastating effects that the earthquake could have. And maybe nobody is better prepared for this event than Jacob Margolis. Jacob is the host of a great KPCC podcast called "The Big One." And it explores the effects that the big one would have on Los Angeles.

GARCIA: Including, by the way, the complicated economic effects. See; a lot of people from outside Los Angeles may not know that the city has an impressively diversified economy; an economy that employs a lot of workers not just in the famous industries like movies, entertainment and tourism but also in manufacturing, shipping, construction and even tech. So how will Los Angeles respond when the big one does hit? Which industries will absorb the most damage? Which residents will suffer the most?

VANEK SMITH: And we were out in LA recently, and we spoke with Jacob while we were actually looking out over the city of Los Angeles from the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook near the NPR bureau in Los Angeles. So today on the show - our chat with Jacob about how bad things would get for the Los Angeles economy and for Los Angeles when the big one hits and what can be done to prepare.


JACOB MARGOLIS, BYLINE: I'm Jacob Margolis, a KPCC science reporter and host of "The Big One: Your Survival Guide."

GARCIA: And the big one refers to what?

MARGOLIS: A giant 7.8 magnitude earthquake on the southern San Andreas that's going to absolutely wreck Los Angeles and the surrounding counties.

GARCIA: Give us a visual now. What are we looking at? And where is this horrifying faultline that might slip one day and cause all this damage?

MARGOLIS: So we're looking out over Los Angeles. Downtown LA with its iconic skyline is to our right. To our left, we have, you know, Hollywood area. You can actually see the Hollywood sign far off out there. Now, imagine. Over the Hollywood sign, over those hills, eventually, you're going to cross the San Andreas out in the middle of the desert.

GARCIA: So what would be sort of the immediate effects of an earthquake like that hitting? Like, give us some sense of the devastation, of the scale.

MARGOLIS: So if you were here on top of this hill when the quake hit, you would probably see a lot of the traffic come to a standstill. You could possibly see the waves undulate across the landscape. Buildings would collapse. Eighteen hundred people would theoretically die in the scenario we're talking about. Sixteen hundred fires would break out and turn into, like, really big conflagrations, which means that large parts of the city will burn down. And that's also because the water system will break in many places because we don't have flexible pipes. That means that roads that actually go over the San Andreas Fault will likely be severed, leaving only a couple of corridors in and out of Southern California and Los Angeles in particular. It doesn't look good.

GARCIA: We're talking about the biggest natural disaster in American history. Is that right?

MARGOLIS: Yeah. So if Katrina was about 150 billion plus or minus a little bit, this is looking like it'll be $200-plus billion worth of damage, economic loss and such across much of Southern California. So the LA that we know now is not the LA that we will know after the earthquake.

GARCIA: Let's talk about how this would affect the economy of Los Angeles. I mean, could you give us some sense of, like, which industries are most vulnerable to this kind of devastation?

MARGOLIS: So what you're going to see is, basically, economic productivity in the region - it will come to some level of a standstill for a period of time. You know, obviously, we have the port here in Los Angeles - Long Beach - one of most important ports in the world. That'll probably come to a standstill for about two weeks. It really depends on the damage there. There are estimates from Adam Rose at USC that say that we will recapture - I believe it's 85% of that business that comes through the port, but we will lose some of it. And that'll, obviously, have a knock on the economy. He told me that we're likely to see a recession in Los Angeles as a result of this, that it will take probably a couple of years for the economy to really start to recover in earnest. And the Whole Foods are going to be OK. The Walmarts are going to be OK. But only 10% of Californians actually own earthquake insurance, for instance. And while businesses might be protected, on an individual level when, you're talking about the people that are going to go purchase those goods or run those businesses or work those businesses, you are going to see those people suffer. And those people might leave.

GARCIA: What about inequality? Would an earthquake make inequality worse? I mean, are the people who are going to be most hurt also the people who are already struggling more?

MARGOLIS: So all the scientists that we talked to and research that we looked at shows that inequality will be exacerbated by the big one. And that's true for many major natural disasters. That's what you saw after Katrina. It's what we've seen after Harvey. And what it basically does - what natural disasters do is they end up funneling wealth to people that already have that money. So maybe it's those people that can afford private insurance that will come in and help them rebuild. Maybe they own a home, so they're going to get more money from FEMA than someone who, say, rents. You know, we talked to a sower in downtown Los Angeles who does not have those resources. Then you're kind of screwed.

What are you going to do? - ask your landlord for an extension. Maybe. Maybe you have a nice landlord. But if you don't and it takes a long time for FEMA money to come in, for any sort of other insurance you have - money to come in, then you're probably going to be displaced. And that will disproportionately affect people and in Los Angeles especially, people of color. If you are white, you are typically going to have more money after a disaster than you did prior to that disaster. White people's wealth increases. Their property prices increase. Now, if you're a person color, that's absolutely not the case. And you're probably going to lose money.

GARCIA: How is it that white families or high-income families or high-net-worth families would end up with more money in the aftermath of the earthquake? Is it because they end up getting most of the recovery funds?

MARGOLIS: The bottom line is when you apply for money from FEMA, if you own a home, as far as we've seen, you're more likely to get more money to help rebuild that home. And you're also going to be able to afford things like health insurance and all these other things that will help you, like I said, bridge the gap between when the earthquake happens to when you can resettle.

GARCIA: Can you give us a sense of, like, how freaked out people are about this? I mean, are they worried enough? Should they worry more? Should this be...

MARGOLIS: The people that we talked to - a lot of them are not worried enough about this. A lot of people here do not know that this is coming. There are buildings in Los Angeles that we know could collapse in a major earthquake. Because of political and economic reasons, we have decided not to, say, force people to go ahead and retrofit those buildings. Across this whole basin here that we're looking out at, there are water pipes that are brittle. And when these waves go through the ground, a lot of them are going to break. So right now they're actually working on replacing all of them, but it's going to take 120 years to do that. And I'm not going to be around in 120 years. The big earthquake, odds are, is going to hit before then, so...

GARCIA: How worried are you personally about this? Like, are you worried enough to consider leaving LA? Or...

MARGOLIS: Let's turn to our right and look out over the LA basin. And you tell me, is this a place that you would want to live?

GARCIA: Yes, it really is.


GARCIA: I've thought about it many, many, many, many times.

MARGOLIS: So for me, I have family here. I work here, obviously. I really enjoy it here. I've been through one earthquake. I am ready for the next one.

GARCIA: Practical terms - how ready are you? What have you stocked up on?

MARGOLIS: Yeah. We have enough supplies to last us for two weeks at our house, so that's a gallon of water per person per day. That is, like, a bunch of canned food and dried food. And we have a bunch of first aid. And that, at its most basic, is what people need. But that is the risk that every single Angelino needs to weigh and needs to consider every single day. For me, I've accepted it. I'm living with it. My family's going to figure it out.

GARCIA: Jacob, thanks man.

MARGOLIS: Thank you.


GARCIA: This podcast was produced by Darius Rafieyan, edited by Paddy Hirsch and fact-checked by Emily Lang. THE INDICATOR's a production of NPR.


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