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Earthquake drill reveals shortcomings

Sat., Dec. 27, 2008

More planning needed in S. California

The largest earthquake drill in U.S. history, held in November in Southern California, found some serious gaps in local earthquake planning, prompting utility companies, emergency managers and others to rethink their approach toward a major temblor.

The Great Southern California Shakeout was the first time so many agencies and earthquake officials teamed to examine what would happen if a huge quake struck the region, in this case a 7.8 magnitude.

Based on the results of the Nov. 13 experiment, in which each agency estimated damage and emergency services requirements based on detailed quake scenarios developed by supercomputers, officials said they will need more emergency workers, better sources of water and new ways of restarting electricity.

For local fire officials, one of the most worrisome estimates from the drill was the 1,600 fires expected to ignite with lamps overturning, electrical wires shorting and natural gas lines bursting. Many fires would grow out of control as firefighters struggled to get fire engines across damaged roads and as water stopped coming out of their hoses, experts found.

About 200 million square feet of property would be damaged in the blazes. The fires would cause more than 900 deaths.

“To hear it quantified like that, it more than got my attention,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief Michael Freeman said. “This was really the worst-case scenario for us. Today, if this were to happen, we would need outside assistance.”

The drill also raised troubling questions about how much water would be available after a major quake. Of all utilities, water would take the longest time to restore, experts found. Some communities might have to wait six months for taps to flow.

And the 7.8 temblor modeled by the test would leave large swaths of Southern California without power, according to an estimate by a working group that included utility companies’ representatives. Breaks in natural gas pipelines could add delays because many plants use gas to generate electricity. It probably would take about 10 days to restore power to 90 percent of customers, the estimates found.


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