It’s a Wednesday. You’re walking through the quad on the way to your second class of the day, and the ground starts to rumble. The trees that line the quad sway vigorously, and cracking sounds ring through the air. Three seconds have passed and you can barely stand up on the shaking ground. You duck under a the wooden bench and begin counting to distract yourself from the mayhem. Tiles from the roofs of Johnson and Fowler slip and come crashing to the ground. You hold on to the leg of the bench and cover your neck. Branches whip through the air and fall next to you. You keep counting, waiting for the shaking to stop.
On average, there is a magnitude seven or greater earthquake south of the San Gabriel Mountains every 150 years, but the last one to shake Los Angeles that severely occurred in 1769. While a large rupture is expected along the San Andreas Fault, a major geographical fault that runs through California, geologists can not predict the exact time that the next “big one” will happen.
According to a U.S. Geological Survey study called the “Shakeout Report,” when a high-magnitude earthquake does shake the San Andreas Fault, the damage to L.A. will far exceed that of the 1994 Northridge earthquake. While the 6.7-magnitude Northridge earthquake affected about 500,000 people, the next big one along the San Andreas Fault could affect up to 10 million California residents.
Dr. Lucile Jones, a leading earthquake expert, recently gave a lecture in front of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco entitled “Imagine America without Los Angeles.” Nicknamed “The Earthquake Lady,” Jones highlighted how Southern Californians need to worry about keeping the complex social structure of L.A. in place after the next big earthquake. Power lines, train tracks and freeways traverse the San Andreas Fault. If the fault were to rupture and L.A. were to experience an earthquake of magnitude seven or higher, commuters residing on opposite sides of the fault would be stranded, about 1800 people would die and at least 1500 buildings would collapse.
According to Professor of geology Brandon Browne, Californians should be focused not on the timing of an earthquake, but on their level of preparedness should one hit.
“The San Andreas Fault has caused a lot of big earthquakes before, and it will have big earthquakes again,” Browne said. “We shouldn’t be worrying about if the earthquake is going to occur tomorrow but, rather, if the earthquake were to occur tomorrow, how would we deal with that?”
With Occidental’s campus located in northeast L.A., the community has acknowledged that the next “big one” may detrimentally affect the city and thecampus, and the college has taken important steps toward emergency preparedness.
The Facilities Management and Campus Safety departments at Occidental constructed an Emergency Operations Plan to be implemented in the event of an earthquake. Life safety, preservation of the environment, preservation of property and business recovery are the college’s priorities. In the event of an earthquake, the Emergency Operations Plan can be implemented whether or not the phones are operational or the incident occurs after normal business hours.
If an earthquake affects Occidental, an Emergency Operations Center will be headquartered at Campus Security’s office, where members of the Occidental community will assume new roles in order to help campus recovery.
“[The Center] is not very big,” said Director of Campus Safety Holly Nieto.“Because what it needs to be is flexible.”
Occidental has implemented initiatives for earthquake preparedness such as “Oxy Has a Plan For That,” in which students were sent an e-mail highlighting an emergency action summary in the event of an earthquake. The school is also going to place “Oxy Emergency Procedures Flipcharts” throughout campus as guides to appropriately deal with and prepare for emergencies such as earthquakes. Additionally, each academic department is currently working individualized plans. Members of Campus Safety are also considering offering meetings in April, which is Earthquake Awareness Month, for community members to engage with each other on the topic.
Occidental students who have taken or who are taking “Earth: Our Environment” (GEO 105) or “Geologic Hazards” (GEO 240) have been exposed to the likelihood of earthquakes in Southern California.
“I don’t think Oxy students realize how real the risk is,” geology major Aly Thibault (junior) said. “Not everyone takes the seconds to think about how the earthquake would affect us. I don’t think that school would be able to continue a semester that ‘the big one’ hits.”
Nieto stressed that all students need to keep a case of water in their rooms, as food and water may be hard to come by after a high-magnitude earthquake. However, there are stashes of water all over Occidental’s campus. There are cases of water in each residence hall, a storage shed by Fiji with 55-gallon drums of water and large containers of water holding up Bike Share’s benches under Berkus Hall. Occidental’s water storages will be invaluable to the community when the next “big one” hits, as many of L.A.’s water pipes are expected to break during the next major earthquake.
“Remember the first thing you put in in a city is the water pipes. That means our water pipes are some of the oldest parts of our infrastructure,” Jones said. “Seventy percent of the water pipes in Southern California are AC pipes and many of them will be breaking when this earthquake happens.”
While creating access to emergency water is one issue, supplying the college with food presents another. According to Nieto, students should also store non-perishable food in their rooms in preparation for a possible earthquake. If a high-magnitude earthquake hits L.A., the college will only be able to feed students for a certain amount of time.
“Campus dining will be able to sustain us with food for at least three days before we really have to start worrying,” Nieto said.
This could become a problem as L.A.-area supermarkets depend on Internet systems for storing and shipping food to stores within the city. With the development of the Internet and increased immediacy of budgeting, grocery stores no longer store food on the L.A. side of the San Andreas Fault.
In her lecture, Jones stressed modern society’s dependence on the Internet and telecommunication as a vulnerability that will slow recovery after the next major earthquake.
“The World Wide Web wasn’t in existence at the time of the Northridge earthquake,” Jones said. “Right now, think of how much both your personal life, but also our economic system, depends on having cell phone communications and internet connectivity.”
As large power lines cross the San Andreas fault, fiber optics could also be cut off when the next high-magnitude earthquake occurs.
“Two-thirds of the connectivity from Los Angeles to the rest of the world go through fiber-optic cables crossing the San Andreas Fault,” Jones said. “So we expect, at the time of the earthquake when the fault moves, we will break these fiber-optic cables and two-thirds of the data capacity between Los Angeles and everyone else will disappear.”
Apart from the technological impacts that an earthquake could cause, L.A. residents will also face the possibility of structural damage. Occidental’s campus was resilient in the face of the Northridge earthquake. Swan Hall and Johnson Hall suffered the most damage but both buildings have been restored and retrofitted since.
“Our buildings have withstood nicely,” Nieto said of buildings that have withstood earthquakes in the past, crediting architect Myron Hunt’s original designs.
Points of danger on campus during the next earthquake will be buildings with many glass windows, areas outdoors where clay tiles can fall from building roofs and science buildings, where chemicals may be released from fume hoods.
However, since 1997 Federal Emergency Management Company (FEMA) building guidelines in L.A. require a 90 percent probability of not collapsing, as it is not cost-effective construction to ensure that a building won’t fall down, and investors otherwise may not. That means there remains a 10 percent chance that all buildings built after 1997 in L.A. could collapse.
If a building is irreparably damaged, a red tag is put on it to indicate that it must be torn down. In the Northridge earthquake, there were 230 building collapses in L.A. and 2,300 red tags. Additionally, yellow tags are put on buildings after an earthquake to indicate that they are not safe to live in during the aftershock sequence. After the Northridge earthquake, there were four yellow-tagged buildings for every single red-tagged building.
“This actually implies that virtually all of our buildings are non-inhabitable,” Jones said. “This is not something that means our cities can survive.”
While many houses in L.A. will be uninhabitable when the next “big one” hits, Occidental will be a place of harbor, according to Nieto.
Occidental is currently working on agreements with Red Cross to have the college designated as a location of shelter for locals in order to acquire additional supplies, such as food, water, search–and–rescue–services and cots. Occidental also has contingency plans with companies that will do an assessment of the campus after an earthquake and the college is first on lists for deliveries of fresh food. Occidental has been in communication with LAPD so they know the college’s needs in the event of an earthquake and are aware of structurally weak spots on campus.
“You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket,” Nieto said. “The best thing anybody can ever do is just be aware.”
It would appear, then, that Occidental does have a plan for that.
“It’s nice to know we won’t be completely on our own and Oxy is going to help us out when disaster strikes,” Thibault said. “An earthquake can happen any second, and that’s what I keep thinking about.”