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Californians Prepare For Future Earthquakes


Another aftershock has rattled people in Southern California just a week after back-to-back earthquakes there. No damage was reported from the smaller quake, but the series of earthquakes has many in California thinking about whether they're ready for the next big one. NPR's Nate Rott has the story.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: About halfway between the towns of Ridgecrest and Trona, there's a new topographical feature in the high California desert - a fault rupture. It looks like a crack in the Earth - not a cartoon-like chasm, just a line in the desert stretching off one way into the distance, the other towards a two-lane highway...


ROTT: ...The only paved road in the area. This highway and a water pipe buried beside it cracked in the 7.1 magnitude earthquake. That's why Jonathan Stewart, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California Los Angeles, is here as crews fix both.

JONATHAN STEWART: So as engineers, what we care about with faults rupturing the surface like this is it impacts our infrastructure. In this case, it's impacted this pipeline.

ROTT: It's basically the only infrastructure in sight.

STEWART: But imagine that this was a dense urban environment, say, Hollywood, which has a fault running through it. You get something like this going through, you've got a lot more pipes, you've got all kinds of structures, you might have subway systems...

ROTT: A list that could go on and on and on. This what-if exercise is one that earthquake and infrastructure people all over the state are doing in the wake of the recent earthquakes. Take that same earthquake and put it in San Francisco or put it in Los Angeles...

JANIELE MAFFEI: You're talking about numerous pipes that have water that have fuel.

ROTT: Janiele Maffei is a structural engineer and the chief mitigation officer with the California Earthquake Authority.

MAFFEI: You know, our electrical systems that cross the fault, our highways. We have highway bridges that are going over faults.

ROTT: The U.S. Geological Survey has done mock scenarios trying to game out this very situation. According to their predictions, a hypothetical 7.8 magnitude earthquake on the southern San Andreas Fault would result in about 1,800 deaths. There would be 1,600 fires, most of them big, buildings would collapse. Major infrastructure - highway, transmission lines, aqueducts - would be damaged. The average dam in California is about 70 years old. And more than a quarter-million people would be displaced. Maffei says California has done a lot in recent years. There are building codes and seismic retrofitting projects, usually spurred by an earthquake.

MAFFEI: With every earthquake in California, we have seen improvements. 1933 was - you could call it the school construction earthquake; '71, the hospitals. You know, the 1994 earthquake, we learned about a couple of other building types.

ROTT: Her hope is that there will be lessons taken from the most recent earthquakes, too - none more pressing than the need for everyone, every individual, to be prepared.

That idea is clearly taking root. Emergency supply shops, like the Surplus Store in West LA, have seen a spike in sales over the last week.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do you have water tablets?

JAIME NAYLOR: The water tablets, we - to preserve or to purify?

ROTT: Jaime Naylor is the owner of the store.

NAYLOR: No, we are hoping to get those any day. We sold out of those. We...

ROTT: Away from customers in a quieter coat room, she says that the last week post-earthquake has been crazy. The reason...

NAYLOR: I would say the majority people are not ready.

ROTT: They don't have an earthquake kit. They don't have water stored or a plan to connect with family. Back in the store's main room, Andy and Maria Ruiz are looking at a four-person earthquake kit complete with water, food, a radio and emergency blankets.

ANDY RUIZ: Oh, I know we're not prepared. We don't have anything. So that's why we're here today to look at supplies.

ROTT: The recent earthquakes, Ruiz says, opened his eyes, and he plans to be prepared for the next one.

Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
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