Newlyweds receiving a wedding gift from Stacy Gerlich these days can expect a little disaster when they unwrap her present. The Los Angeles Fire Department captain forsakes the traditional toaster oven or personalized bric-a-brac, instead stuffing backpacks with goggles, bottled water, toilet paper and other earthquake-survival items.
"Ten out of 15 couples said it was the best gift they've ever received," said Gerlich, who heads the department's Community Emergency Response Training, a seven-week disaster-training program for city residents.
If every Southern Californian invited her to their weddings, the region would be a safer place.
Even as the area rebounded from this summer's Chino Hills earthquake, which jangled nerves but caused little property damage, local disaster experts remain apprehensive about homeowners' overall readiness to survive a massive temblor. There's good reason, too.
This year, a group of state and federal scientists, including personnel from the U.S. Geological Survey, released an authoritative, if chilling, prediction: There's a 67% chance the Los Angeles area will experience a magnitude 6.7 or stronger quake sometime during the next 30 years. Information can be found at www.scec.org/ucerf. The destructive 1994 Northridge quake rated a 6.7.
Scientists say their estimates are getting sharper, and emergency personnel sure wish the population would take heed.
A just-completed survey of Americans' readiness for a terrorist strike, which researchers consider one barometer of Californians' earthquake preparedness, stamped an exclamation point on that concern. Of the 412 Los Angeles County residents participating in the survey, which the U.S. Department of Homeland Security helped fund and the UCLA School of Public Health oversaw, just 37% responded that they had emergency plans in place.
Even fewer -- 27% -- said they had purchased items to make themselves safer. Half said they had squirreled away supplies -- a statistic the researcher who shepherded the study cautioned was deceptive because someone who purchased a few canned goods might say he or she was ready.
Developing a family disaster-evacuation and communication plan; stocking emergency supplies in your home, car and workplace; and having a clear understanding of the probable hazards around you in a crisis are the building blocks of preparation, officials say. Because fires, disrupted utilities, collapsed structures and compromised highways are likely to monopolize emergency personnel during a major quake, residents should be self-sufficient for three days.
"When there is no disaster Monday through Sunday and people pick up the phone to call 911, the fire department will be there," Gerlich said. "But following a big disaster, you're on your own for 72 hours. When we have the next earthquake, we are going to be dependent on how well we've prepared ourselves and our family.
"Would you rather hear the truth than a lie?"
Gerlich and her colleagues are well aware that the window of opportunity that opens after a small rattler to coax residents to secure their homes can rapidly shrink to a porthole. Since the Northridge quake, only about 4,000 Angelenos a year -- or roughly 0.1% of the city's estimated 4 million population -- have undergone the Community Emergency Response Training program offered for free by the Fire Department.
Asked if they were ready for a magnitude 7 or higher quake in a recent online poll by the Pasadena Star-News, about 83% of respondents said no.
"Homeowners don't see preparedness as being important in their daily life," said Carol Parks, chief of community preparedness for Los Angeles' Emergency Management Department. "They know they need to do it but say they'll get around to it later."
As history shows, persuading homeowners to brace themselves requires more than government agencies nagging them with checklists and scary facts. Warning people about strapping heavy furniture to the walls or keeping extra medications on hand doesn't mean thousands will.
Though previous outreach relied on periodic public service announcements, the latest regional campaign revolves around consistent nudging -- in bill mailers and brochures, on websites and from community leaders. It's also about reminding people that assembling and maintaining their family survival kit takes neither a large time commitment nor a mogul's ATM card.
"If you went home today and took a roll of toilet paper, a roll of paper towels, a flashlight, some water and some food, and you store that in a place where you'll have access in an emergency, you'd be three steps ahead of where you are now," Gerlich said.
One hurdle remains Southern California's polyglot population, where messages must penetrate 81 recognized languages. To counter that and public apathy, efforts are focused on combining repeated messages encouraging homeowners to educate themselves with quasi-peer pressure. The goal is to instill a group "norm to prepare," whereby one set of residents sees another set act and emulates them.
Emblazoning a message on a splashy billboard, once the protocol, hasn't mobilized people effectively.
"You need repetitive messages from different sources," said Linda Bourque, a UCLA professor of public health who led the terrorism-readiness survey and is currently working with the state to measure quake preparedness among California households. "You emphasize the things that are cheap to do and don't take so much time."
Unfortunately, those messages typically have a short half-life. Attention spans are fleeting. Immediate financial and family demands take precedence. Add to that antiquated delusions about big government riding into individual neighborhoods like the cavalry, and lethargy can set in.
The public tends to react on a short-term basis, Parks said. "After you have a big event in China, Myanmar, even 9/11 and Katrina, people get interested and remember they need to go and get prepared, but their interest only lasts a few weeks."
When researchers examined citizens' behavior after the Whittier Narrows, Loma Prieta and Northridge quakes, Bourque said, they noticed the masses weren't rushing out to safeguard themselves. The people who did act, acted on the simplest things -- purchasing battery-powered radios, learning how to secure their water heater. Based on follow-up research, she doesn't believe most people have maintained those preparations.
Jeff Edelstein, owner of SOS Survival Products in Van Nuys, said Bourque's assessment is borne out by his experience. His store has been humming since the Chino quake. He expects that to taper off in a few months, though.
Neighborhood councils are taking up some of the mantle. To serve their area, some enclaves even have filled large storage containers with food, blankets, portable toilets and other essentials. SOS won the contract to fill two bins with medical and search-and-rescue supplies in the Lake Balboa Neighborhood Council area, Edelstein said.
Officials will measure preparedness in November, when the area hosts the Great Southern California ShakeOut, billed as the largest earthquake drill in U.S. history. The weeklong exercise involving emergency personnel, law enforcement, industry and others is predicated on surviving the aftermath of a 7.8 temblor along the San Andreas fault.
Seismic experts say a quake this size thumps the area every 150 years -- and the last one occurred 151 years ago.
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