PREPARING FOR THE BIG ONE : More Southern Californians Take Action as a Scary Earthquake Shakes Up an Industry

As a geology student at Texas A&M; University, Michele McCormick learned her lessons about California's shifting tectonic plates and continental shelf. She had seen the seismographic charts and the map of active faults underground that resembled the freeways above. If that weren't enough, her instructor advised the class: "If any of you move to California, you're crazy."

She came anyway, of course, settled into a place with a view of the shimmering Pacific and slipped into denial.

Now a Newport Beach psychologist, McCormick estimates she stayed in denial--a peculiarity of the California character--for the next eight years.

The Oct. 1 earthquake jolted her back to reality. "I'm not into denial about the earthquake anymore," she said. "I'm afraid of it."

Likewise, Jack and Cathy Subar had meant to prepare for the earthquake when they moved last September from Dallas to Irvine. But they forgot. When it came, Cathy said, "it felt like I was standing on top of waves and they were moving." She panicked at the thought of her children, though they were safely on the bus for school. Jack was in the shower, and over the rattling of the door, she screamed, "Get the kids!"

The experience shook her emotionally for several weeks, she said.

Within days, both the Subars and McCormick had created their own disaster plans and spent hundreds of dollars on earthquake kits--packs of disaster supplies with items such as flashlights, water jugs, light sticks (chemical tubes that glow in the dark when snapped), transistor radios, Mylar blankets, vacuum-packed C rations, lime for sanitation, gauze sponges and surgical tape. Most items have a five-year shelf life.

"I added fruit bars, granola bars, three or four days' worth of medicine my daughter and I take," Cathy Subar said. "We have the flashlight you can hook on to your belt, packets of water, an extra pair of running shoes in case we're caught unprepared on the highway, an extra sweater, matches you can use when wet. . . . medical kits, tablets for purifying water. We always keep gas tanks half full."

She believes the Big One will come sooner rather than later. "I feel it's not if, but when," she said.

Unlike the Subars and McCormick, most Orange County workers and residents are still unprepared, disaster officials say. But partly as a result of the Whittier quake, more procrastinators--significantly those who have recently moved from out of state--are now ready for the Big One --an 8.3 earthquake on the San Andreas Fault, or, what scientists believe poses a more likely danger for Orange County, a 7.5 quake on the Newport-Inglewood Fault, an active fault which runs along the county's coastline.

Vendors of earthquake preparedness supplies have seen business soar. After years of struggling to persuade Southern Californians to invest in water pouches and freeze-dried raisins and 10-year batteries, they now say they may turn a profit this year.

Oct. 2, business at the Western Earthquake Readiness warehouse in Santa Ana jumped 3,000%, said Kathy Gannon, founder. "At the end of October, I'd done the equivalent of 30 months," she said. The store sells customized earthquake kits with three-day supplies in a $150 Family Kit, a $60 Auto Kit, a $225 Corporate Kit (for an office of 10) and a $45 Fanny Pack which can fit in a desk.

The packs can include battery-less wind-up radios, fire extinguishers, wrenches with directions for turning off the home gas line and four-ounce water pouches. (Some of those unfamiliar with disaster supplies have wondered whether the small package contains powdered water to which they need to add water, Gannon said.)

Schools are buying supplies and "I've seen corporate business accelerate," Gannon said. "Companies are saying, we can be liable if we don't have enough water for three days."

Even a novelty spinoff, the Yuppie Earthquake Survival Kit, sold so well over the holidays that it launched a whole product line for its creators, two Los Angeles actors. The $120-briefcase was packed with Romanoff Caviar, Ile de France pate, Aulsebrooks Water Crackers, Stolichnaya vodka, Dunhill cigarettes, Tylenol, a first-aid kit, a wrench and a transistor radio.

Disaster officials say Southern Californians who regard earthquakes as a novelty are living in a fantasyland in which a major earthquake, with flattened buildings, shattered glass and toxic clouds, won't happen to them. Or if it does, that paramedics, firefighters, hospitals, all utilities and McDonald's will still be there to help them out.

In fact, "with an 8.3, where we're close to the epicenter, we know we won't have police and fire (for at least 72 hours), and we will lose 60% of our hospital beds and the technology that goes with it," said Dale Brown, program coordinator of the Orange County Fire Department's Emergency Management Division.

"Native Californians are hard to sell," he said. "We tend to get smug and say, 'Hey, it's no big deal.'

"Those who are prepared are those who were raised in disaster-prone areas. They've had personal experience or known someone who lost a young one and remember that. They are jaded, so to speak, into doing something," Brown said.

"We're doing a little bit better," he said. "But time is running out."

While most Orange County schools now have some sort of earthquake plan and some disaster supplies for their staff and students, less than 25% of individuals and 5% of businesses are prepared, officials estimated.

"People can't understand that they'll be literally on their own," said Arlene Roach, account executive for Extend-A-Life, a Pasadena supply firm. She is trying to sell supplies to more water and telephone companies because "until the utilities get on line, you and I won't get on line."

Psychologist McCormick, a native Texan, said she was amazed at how quickly Californians repress their fears. "The next day you don't think about it. It's incredible."

They are not unlike native New Yorkers who step over a mugging victim on the way to the subway, she said.

"One thing I noticed about my clients, almost every single one of them mentioned fear of the earthquake. Those who ended up making a plan and taking action were not as frightened with the aftershocks," she said. "They seemed to feel more in control. Those who had just gone on in a state of denial continued to feel anxious about it."

She distributes an emergency supply catalogue to her clients and shares with them her own disaster plan, she said.

After the quake, she had a contractor tell her where the central beam was in her apartment. On Oct. 1, she had run outside--which she later learned is dangerous because of the possibility of falling wires, or buildings. The next time, she said, "I'll be standing in the hallway under the door where the central beam stands."

She and four couples who live in her Corona del Mar neighborhood agreed they would meet at the most central home after a quake and help one another out. Although she lives alone, she bought a family-size earthquake kit, a 10-gallon water tank and a gas-pipe wrench from Gannon's supply store to share with her neighbors.

The Subars agreed that they would meet in an open area behind their apartment after a quake and designated an out-of-state relative they each should call if they were to become separated. They spent $325 for two earthquake preparedness kits, one for the family at home and another for the car, which they now keep at least half-filled with gas. They hold monthly earthquake drills.

So does nearly every school in Orange County.

School officials say they also have been buying earthquake survival supplies for several years, ever since the Mexico City and Imperial Valley earthquakes heightened earthquake awareness and since fire and medical officials started to publicize the idea that they, too, could be victims of the Big One .

The Cypress School District budgeted $25,000 last year and $22,000 this year from its lottery funds for earthquake preparedness, said Terry Scott, district administrator. Each school has three master emergency kits with hard hats, safety glasses, first-aid supplies, dust masks, and a complete set of tools, sanitary facilities and tarps. Teachers have been trained in emergency response and flyers have been sent home to parents.

Schools in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District hold regular building evacuation drills. Teachers are assigned either first-aid or search-and-rescue roles. Full supply kits are being assembled for distribution, a district spokesman said.

The district is "the leader of the county," Brown said. "Every single school principal has a disaster book for that school.

"Their plan is constantly updated, which is one of the most important things, that it not just collect dust."

The district, he said, plans to buy $2,000 rustproof, weather-sealed cargo carriers that officials will stock with disaster supplies and store away from power lines.

During the past three years, students at Venado Middle School in Irvine have raised money to augment city funds for the purchase of emergency supplies for half the student body for three days, said Mary Ann Emmons, past director of the school's emergency preparedness committee. So far, they have spent about $1,200 on food, water barrels, pumps to get the water out of the barrels, wrenches, shovels, picks, emergency toilet facilities, battery-operated megaphones and walkie-talkies. They have collected sanitary napkins as bandages for heavy bleeding, and they plan to make their own emergency stretchers.

They have prepared themselves to care for 400 of the school's 800 students the first day after an earthquake, on the assumption the rest will either be injured or taken care of at home or elsewhere in the community. "The second day, another half would leave and the next day another half," she said.

"We believe an earthquake could come tomorrow or in 20 years," Emmons said. "But if it comes tomorrow, we need to be as prepared as we can be."

Public and private segments of the community also have been bolstering their emergency responses with workshops and drills.

On Jan. 27, county agencies in Southern California will simulate their response to an 8.3 earthquake along the San Andreas Fault to test two elements--communications and situation analysis--of the newly revised Southern California Earthquake Response Plan, Brown said.

And in April, members of the Business and Industry Council for Emergency Planning and Preparedness will conduct on-site exercises to test their emergency response plans. Nearly 40 Southern California business representatives have been studying disaster preparedness and making their own plans since 1983, said President Larry Ehrmann. Most members are from the Greater Los Angeles area.

In Orange County, for every company that has an earthquake plan, "100 haven't done anything," Brown said. Few have been willing to spend the money, or dislocate tenants to retrofit buildings for earthquake safety, he said.

"The problem with Orange County is that a lot of the industrial buildings are owned by a few people. As far as I know, none of them have any retrofit programs going on," said Ray Kincaid, regional manager of Earthquake Engineering, a seismic review consulting firm in Costa Mesa.

Modern high-rises will likely survive earthquakes, he said. But a major earthquake will leave pockets of damage, depending on the age and type of buildings--pre-1971 concrete tilt-ups being the worst--and the soil conditions, Kincaid said.

Portions of Orange County are built on soft soil, which can amplify quaking and has the potential to liquefy, he said.

Even more dangerous than tumbling buildings, Brown said, may be flying objects inside the building. "Historically, that's where the dead and injured come from."

Although some Californians consistently ignore it, basic advice during an earthquake is "duck and cover" and don't run outside, Brown said.

Everyone needs a separate plan of action--where to go, whom to call--for work, home and school, he said. Depending on what a school's plans are and whether both parents work, some children may be better off staying at school, he said.

Earthquake supplies may be obtained from camping and other supply stores more cheaply than from vendors of preassembled kits, he said. The kits may be exorbitant and not take into account individual needs--such as medication, he warned.

"It's like going on a camping trip. No one can say, 'Here's your camping gear.' "

Vendor Gannon, however, said she saves individuals time, money and confusion. The greatest confusion is over water storage, she said. Water stored in clear containers can be exposed to air and light and may have bacteria growing within six months, she said. Blue water containers inhibit bacterial growth, she said.

While some people may feel cheated by buying something they don't use, Gannon likens buying supplies to insurance. "People put out money for a premium. At the end of the year, they're sorry they put out the money, but they're glad they haven't been burglarized."

"Prepackaged kits are great, but if you don't know the contents and how to use them, they're worthless," Ehrmann said. Buyers should take them apart and add personal items like eyeglasses, he said. Because he is diabetic, he added insulin and syringes.

According to Brown, basics include freeze-dried food, one gallon of water per person, extra for hygiene and cooking, flashlight with extra batteries, battery-powered radio, blankets and auxiliary heating and lighting. "If everyone would do that, we would save thousands and thousands of lives," he said.

Most Californians are "victims of our own technology," he said. "Our grandparents were pioneers. We have less of that pioneer spirit than our parents. Our kids have less than we do. In the '80s and beyond, we've got to take responsibility rather than thinking technology will save me."

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