Preparing for the worst

WITH APOLOGIES TO BEN FRANKLIN, in Southern California there are three certainties in life: death, taxes and earthquakes. Government can't do much about the first, does all too much about the second and needs to do more about the third. Emergency response agencies in Los Angeles County, often touted as the best in the nation, must get better still to prepare for the Big One that scientists say is more imminent than they thought.

A recent study by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography suggests that the southern portion of the San Andreas Fault is primed for the long-dreaded Big One. Quakes have hit along other parts of the fault within the last 150 years, but the Scripps study reports that strain buildups in Southern California have not been relieved by a major quake in more than 300 years -- long before the region was heavily populated. Researchers say seismic stresses are building up faster than they previously realized. In other words, we have never seen a disaster on the scale of what scientists say is coming our way.

That's just the San Andreas. A host of lesser-known faults in the Los Angeles area have the potential to release seismic waves that could topple freeways, knock out power plants and shut down water supplies. Factor in the threat of a terrorist incident, which experts agree is likely to remain high, and the experience of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast with Hurricane Katrina less than a year ago, and the importance of well-designed disaster preparedness and emergency evacuation plans is clear.

Experts say the region's emergency response system works well enough for moderate-sized disasters and that it has been studied and enhanced in the wake of Katrina. But Los Angeles is still not prepared for a cataclysmic event. After the Northridge quake, the Red Cross sheltered 20,000 people whose homes were damaged. A major quake could leave at least 10 times as many people with no place to stay.

The Board of Supervisors has commissioned a study to show where preparedness and evacuation plans fall short. The county is smart to scrutinize its plans. But Katrina taught Americans that no amount of government response will help everyone affected during the first few days, or even weeks, of a major disaster. The Red Cross advises that every resident gather enough supplies to survive two weeks without the standard government services: water, power, sanitation, passable roads. Even that may not be enough. But it's a start.

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