Officials Still Readying for the Big One

Times Staff Writer

Nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina awakened policymakers to holes in California’s own disaster preparedness, Los Angeles County is still struggling to fill what officials admit are significant deficiencies in local planning.

Although years of responding to earthquakes and fires has garnered the region a national reputation for disaster preparedness, Katrina prompted officials to reexamine how the region would deal with a truly catastrophic disaster.

Over the last year, the county has been studying what more needs to be done and has identified several weak areas.

A key deficiency is that most of the 136 unincorporated communities in the county do not have disaster response or preparedness plans.


That means that there is no single person responsible for making sure that everyone in such communities as Marina del Rey or La Crescenta knows where to go in an emergency, and no detailed plan explaining how to evacuate or where to find help.

Unlike incorporated cities, which must have a basic evacuation plan, these communities are more likely to be covered by a countywide plan that might not address their specific needs.

Officials are also concerned about a lack of hospital beds, difficulty distributing medicine and exactly how to evacuate large numbers of people.

The damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquake, disastrous as it was, would pale in comparison to the devastation expected from the massive temblor that scientists say is in store for the region -- and mounting a coordinated response would be extremely difficult.

The county has been studying deficiencies in the system over the last year, but efforts to fill the gaps have been slow getting off the ground.

“They’re nearly all in the early stages,” said Michael Brooks, acting director of the county Office of Emergency Management.

Much of the work thus far has involved research to find the gaps in preparedness and setting up committees to address such problems as how to evacuate people with special needs, Brooks said.

The county is “revamping from the ground up” its plans to deal with a major earthquake or other disaster, he said. But such an effort takes time, involving intensive coordination between emergency preparedness experts, public health officials, private companies, schools and even the general public.

If the work does not progress significantly before a major disaster strikes, the gaps in the system could considerably diminish the county’s ability to respond, experts said.

Southern California is “probably one of the most prepared areas in the country,” said professor John R. Harrald of the George Washington University Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management. “But if you get something in the scale and scope of Katrina ... it would require people making it up as they go along.”

Dennis Mileti, a member of the California Seismic Safety Commission and past director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, said the county should move quickly to fill the gaps.

“I’m surprised to hear that there are parts of Los Angeles County that do not have emergency plans in place,” Mileti said.

Brooks said the county was working with a contractor to assess the needs of the communities and determine whether they require a disaster plan. The assessments were scheduled to begin in June and be completed by the end of the year.

The county is also attempting to improve evacuation planning, Brooks said.

The existing framework works well for small and moderate quakes, fires or other emergencies but does not include details on how to get people out of harm’s way in a massive disaster, he said. Because similar problems have been identified in the state’s evacuation plans, the county is working with the California Office of Emergency Services to develop a more regional approach to evacuations, he and others said.

The county also lacks a plan to care for people with special needs during and after a major disaster.

An important way to reach people with disabilities and other special needs is through community outreach, but that is another area that has not yet been addressed.

Last month, The Times reported that the county Office of Emergency Management could afford to print and distribute only 5,000 copies of a pamphlet offering tips on how people with disabilities should prepare for a big quake -- and had no funds to prepare audio, Braille or large-print versions.

For the able-bodied population as well, seismic safety experts say, a massive, months-long public relations campaign is the only way to nudge Southern Californians to properly prepare their homes, businesses and families for the devastation that would follow a massive quake.

But despite recent increases in county property tax revenue, Brooks’ budget does not include the $500,000 it would take to start such a campaign.

“There’s not enough money to support the public education program,” he said.

The county has, however, begun to address significant gaps it has found in training for county personnel who will need to respond to an emergency.

After studying the preparedness and response system in the wake of Katrina, local officials realized there was a shortage of employees trained to take on certain tasks during an emergency -- from working in the county’s Emergency Operations Center to filling in for colleagues who might be injured or otherwise unable to get to work.

Brooks said the county had already begun an improved training program, which he hopes will be completed by the end of summer.

In the area of health and medicine, local officials have made some progress since Katrina, setting up a coordinated network of hospitals where various levels of care will be provided in the event of a major quake and compiling a list of doctors and nurses willing to care for the injured.

But there are still too few emergency rooms and ventilators in the county to handle even a large outbreak of the flu, much less a catastrophic earthquake, said Carol Meyer, the county’s director of emergency medical services. Most area hospitals still have not been sufficiently retrofitted to remain operational after massive shaking, and no mobile hospitals are available.

Another major gap is in the county’s ability to shelter large numbers of people. At the peak of displacement after the 1994 Northridge quake, the Red Cross provided shelter for an estimated 16,000 to 20,000 per night. But most quake experts say that magnitude 6.7 temblor, devastating as it was, is considered only moderately strong. A huge rupture along one of the many Southland faults, by comparison, would displace 200,000 people or more, a number the Red Cross has said it could not accommodate on very short notice.

A report by the Southern California Earthquake Center found that a magnitude 7.5 quake along the Puente Hills fault could kill as many as 18,000 people, injure up to 268,000 and displace as many as 735,000 families.

A study by the state Division of Mines and Geology found that a 7.0 temblor on the Newport-Inglewood fault would block freeways, sharply curtail flights at LAX, reduce the number of hospital beds by a third and knock out major power plants for days.

Efforts to find additional shelters are also still in the beginning stages, officials said.

Michelle Callahan, chief of general services for the county Department of Public Social Services, said emergency response officials staged a dress rehearsal last September of how to quickly prepare shelters and other services, prompted in part by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Also needing improvement are systems to warn county residents that a disaster is impending or occurring. For example, although television and radio stations plan to broadcast such warnings, there is little to alert people who have lost electricity or are not near a TV.

“What we don’t have is alternative alert systems,” Brooks said. “We no longer have sirens at the beach.”

To address this lack, his department plans first to develop a tsunami warning system. If a disaster occurs before the system is developed, Brooks said, “the Sheriff’s Department has a contingency plan: They will drive up and down with a bullhorn.”

The county also needs to improve its relationship with utility companies, learning more about how their systems are set up and where potentially dangerous lines or materials are, officials said. Moreover, county studies show that without better coordination with utilities, bringing such services back on line after a disaster could take longer.

Since Katrina, new agreements have been struck with the utility companies, whose employees have participated in joint preparedness efforts with the county. Still, Brooks said, the relationship is not as deep as it needs to be.

Several experts praised the county for its progress in preparedness and response since the wake-up call of Katrina. But they caution that the longer it takes to improve the system, the more likely that the public’s concern -- and that of the politicians who hold the purse strings -- will wane.

And that, the experts said, could mean that Los Angeles County will not be fully prepared when disaster strikes.

Seismologist Lucy Jones, scientist-in-charge for Southern California at the U.S. Geological Survey, said it’s not unexpected that a large bureaucracy like county government would need several months to get started on a huge project such as improving emergency preparedness. More important, she said, is gauging the county’s level of commitment to completing the task.

“The question is not how far they’ve gotten thus far,” she said, “but whether the pressure is on.”