Video: Californians wait, fret over 'the Big One'

By George Lewis Correspondent
NBC News
updated 9/21/2005 7:56:12 PM ET 2005-09-21T23:56:12

The situation in the Gulf Coast has people across the country wondering how well their communities are prepared for major disasters. That’s a major concern in the nation’s most populous state — California.

Standing on top of the San Andreas Fault, geologist Pat Williams talks about the next big catastrophe he thinks will hit this country.

“We know that we’re not only overdue, but way overdue for a rupture of the southernmost part of the San Andreas Fault,” says Williams.

The fault runs all the way from the bottom of California past San Francisco and into the ocean. A rupture could kill thousands and isolate major cities.

And the mayor of San Francisco says after a big earthquake, people shouldn’t count on immediate help from outside.

“I think the best lesson we can learn from Katrina is that we’re all in this on our own and that we need to be prepared,” says San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. The city has set up a Web site,, telling people just how to do that.

The California Aqueduct, which supplies much of the water for Los Angeles, crosses the San Andreas Fault. A major earthquake on the fault could knock the aqueduct out of commission.

“We are going to lose all of our natural gas lines, all of our water lines, many of our power lines, most of our transportation systems,” says seismologist Lucy Jones of the U.S. Geological Survey. “We are going to have a disruption to our infrastructure in a way that is going to take months to recover from.”  

Jones says she has eerie memories of a FEMA exercise just before 9/11. One disaster scenario was terrorists attacking New York, a second was a giant hurricane wiping out New Orleans, and a third was a great earthquake leveling San Francisco.

“We’re waiting for that third shoe to drop now,” she says.

At the earthquake-resistant emergency center in Los Angeles, Lee Spaden of the County of Los Angeles says they wait and plan a coordinated response, including coordinated terms and acronyms. That way, “If someone from Alameda County or someone from Merced County came down here to be an emergency manager,” says Spaden, “we all speak the same language.”

It’s another lesson from Katrina: Delay is deadly and first responders all need to be on the same page.

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