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On Shaky Ground: Gaps Remain in L.A. Earthquake Preparedness

L.A.'s mayor unveiled new steps to address gaps in quake preparedness, as experts say water, fuel, communications, and the power grid are vulnerable.

Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti unveiled a new earthquake preparedness plan for Los Angeles Monday that he said would help the nation’s second biggest city absorb the shock of the major earthquake that all experts agree is inevitable.

“Today we are taking bold action to make LA an epicenter of earthquake preparedness, resilience and safety,” said Garcetti. “Instead of being complacent and then jarred into action by a devastating earthquake, LA is moving forward proactively with a comprehensive package of preparedness and resiliency measures to fortify our buildings, protect our water supply, and keep our telecommunications online when the ‘Big One’ hits."

Experts agree that the West Coast will someday endure a seismic event many times more powerful than the 1994 Northridge quake that killed dozens or the 1989 Bay Area quake that stopped the World Series. Estimated fatalities in some of the scenarios for metropolitan Los Angeles range into the thousands, with water and electricity shortages affecting millions and property damage in topping a trillion dollars.

Seismologist Lucy Jones, who served as science advisor to Mayor Garcetti on the report released Monday, titled a recent lecture about the potential impact of the “Big One” on Southern California “Imagine America without Los Angeles.”

An ongoing NBC News investigation of earthquake preparedness, however, has raised questions about the ability of government and individuals in Greater Los Angeles and other cities on the West Coast to react to the “Big One” by providing the fundamental ingredients of modern life –water, communications, fuel and electricity.

The plan announced Monday concedes some of the vulnerabilities that first responders and other government officials identified to NBC News and attempts to address them, and also details just how severe shortages could become.

Image: The Santa Monica Freeway has split and collapsed over La Cienega Boulevard following the Northridge quake
The Santa Monica Freeway split and collapsed over La Cienega Boulevard following the Northridge, California earthquake in the predawn hours of Jan. 17, 1994. Eric Draper / AP, file

Prior to Garcetti’s announcement, experts had warned NBC News that the power grid was susceptible to long-term outages, and that fire departments would run out of water to fight fires. Officials project up to 1600 fires in Los Angeles alone, in a region already parched by an historic drought.

“We had a fire this morning,” said Jones, referring to a blaze that gutted a block of downtown L.A. Monday. “Imagine 1600.”

The new plan recommends protecting the electric power grid at the fault lines that crisscross Southern California, and also recommends additional measures to protect the water supply.

It warns that the water systems that supply Los Angeles with 88 percent of its water all cross the San Andreas Fault: “The Los Angeles Aqueduct, Colorado River Aqueduct, and California Aqueduct cross the San Andreas Fault zone a total of 32 times and will likely be simultaneously damaged in a single earthquake event, resulting in the inability to import water to Los Angeles for many months.”

In Depth

The plan says the city should develop a bond issue to pay for “seismic resilience” in the city’s water infrastructure, meaning strengthening the pipes and aqueducts. It also recommends creating an alternate water supply from seawater and recycled water specifically to fight fires.

But the plan does not suggest new measures to protect the city’s fuel supply. Experts warn that many firetrucks, which get 2.5 to 4 miles a gallon, will simply run out of gas. Officials also fear that there won’t be enough firefighters to handle the crisis.

Law enforcement sources also told NBC News that first responders for both Los Angeles County and the City of Los Angeles have not been provided with essential supplies for their families. Lack of batteries, water, and first aid could hinder their deployment in the critical first 72 hours.

There is also not yet any mass casualty plan for Los Angeles County that is specific to earthquakes, meaning a plan for dealing with the thousands of injuries and fatalities feared in a major event. An earthquake-specific plan may not be finalized for more than a year.

Local officials defended the city and county’s preparedness. “We are constantly addressing what happens in disasters,” said Ken Kondo, spokesman for the L.A. County Office of Emergency Management. “All these things (the various city, county and regional disaster plans) are living documents. We constantly exercise on them and are always in the process of updating them. They are not just sitting on someone’s shelf. They are being used and evaluated.”