Two nights ago I described how we lived through the Northridge earthquake twenty-five years ago. We were less than five miles from the epicenter of a 6.7M quake, the largest in the Los Angeles area in over 160 years. 57 people died, over 8,700 people were injured, and the damage estimates range all the way up to $50B. We survived the initial shaking, everyone safe but full of adrenaline, and then checked the house for damage.
Last night I talked about the first few days after the earthquake, dealing with all of the utilities being out for days and starting to pick up the pieces. (Literally.)
The weeks and months after the earthquake were a different sort of hell from the first five minutes and the first five days. The first five minutes was a sprint through terror and adrenaline. The first five days was a couple of laps through a whole new world, finally ending in a modicum of normalcy returning as the utilities returned. The weeks and months afterward were an ultramarathon through that new world, realizing in many ways that it wouldn’t ever quite be the same.
There were aftershocks. Damn, I hate aftershocks. Just about the time your subconscious had forgotten to be terrified and on the edge of your seat 24/7, usually right about the time you dared to actually think, “Hey, it’s been a few days since we had a really good aftershock,” then that of course was when one would hit. Even the little ones could do that – it’s amazing how little shaking you need to get triggered while suffering through that particular form of PTSD.
Beyond that were the simple but omnipresent, pain in the ass, nagging inconveniences. It just wore you down.
There was debris everywhere. Almost everyone for miles and miles had some damage to their house or a cinder block wall that was down. An entire county, an area the size of a mid-sized state, all at once started piling tons of brick, wood, insulation, dirt, drywall, toilets, water heaters, and every other sort of construction material out on the curb. There were piles of debris for months, and as soon as the city swept through the neighborhood and picked it all up then new piles started.
On top of that, you couldn’t get there from here. The 10 Freeway through the heart of town from Santa Monica to Downtown had dozens of bridges that had collapsed or were unsafe. The original estimates were that it was going to take decades to get them all fixed. (To the credit of the mayor, governor, and everyone else involved, they did it in something on the order of a year – it was an amazing accomplishment.) A major overpass on the 118 Freeway had collapsed, blocking both the 118 and the 5 Freeways. Trying to get into the Antelope Valley was a nightmare for years afterward. The 5 Freeway, which is THE major artery between Los Angeles and Northern California, was blocked for weeks.
Time moves on. Bridges and houses and schools and hospitals and office buildings do finally get repaired. Debris gets hauled off.
And people forget. They stop thinking of preparation for the next time. They are too busy to keep in mind that as bad as this was, it wasn’t “the Big One.” So preparation and preparedness becomes lax again.
We keep our bugout bags. Just in case.
We keep water and dry food stocked. Just in case.
I keep clothes and shoes and flashlights by my bed where I can find them. Just in case.
But it won’t be enough.
When “the Big One” hits, the power and water and gas and won’t be out for four or five days. It will be out for four or five months, if not longer.
The gas stations won’t be dark and dry for a week. They’ll be empty and useless for months.
The ATMs won’t be out of order for a few days. The grocery stores won’t be shuttered for a few days. The schools and offices won’t be closed for a week.
There won’t be 57 dead – there will be 5,000+ dead. Or 25,000+. Or 50,000+.
There won’t be 8,700 injured, there will be 100,000+. With very few hospitals, doctors, nurses, or other facilities left standing for a hundred miles.
There won’t be a dozen fires and buildings burning as they’re still shaking and collapsing. There will be thousands. (Look at the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.)
It might happen tonight. It might happen in 100 years. There’s no way to predict, no way to know, no way to warn.
But they’re working on warning. The City of Los Angeles just released a free phone app that has the potential to give a few seconds of warning. It’s technology that’s used in Japan and other places, based on the fact that different types of energy released by an earthquake travels at different speeds through the earth. Before the major shaking arrives, low-frequency sound waves have traveled much faster and give an opportunity to sound the warning that the shaking is coming.
If you’re sitting on top of the epicenter, you don’t get any warning. It all happens at once. But if the San Andreas Fault cuts loose out by Palmdale, people in the San Fernando Valley might have ten seconds of warning, those in Downtown or Santa Monica get fifteen seconds, those in Long Beach and Orange County get thirty or forty seconds. (Don’t quote me on the times – I’m discussing the concept as I understand it, not the math as CalTech calculates it.)
Fifteen seconds might not sound like much, until you think about where you might be and what you might be doing. Elevators can be programmed to respond to an alert by stopping at the nearest floor and opening up. Surgeons can be alerted to stop cutting and brace for the quake. People in offices and homes have precious seconds to shut off the stove, or get away from the big, breakable windows, or get under the big, solid desk. Drivers have a chance to slow down or stop and to get out from underneath that overpass that might collapse on them, or off that bridge that might collapse out from under them.
When “the Big One” comes, we won’t be inconvenienced for a few days or a couple of weeks or months like we were twenty-five years ago. We’ll be facing the possibility of being refugees, the only option for many of us being to move to another part of the country and start over. But for many of us, with the use of some better technology, we’ll live to be refugees instead of being casualties. And if we all take responsibility for being better prepared and doing those little things that we usually ignore, we’ll not only survive but be able to recover far more quickly when (not if) the Big One hits.