Southland not ready for disaster

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Despite millions of dollars spent in crisis management drills and dozens of plans to deal with earthquakes and other calamities, Southern California emergency preparedness agencies have done little to plan for mass displacement and destruction across a broad swath of the region on the scale of Hurricane Katrina, according to interviews with state and local authorities.

Because the region is so huge and most damage from earthquakes and fires typically is relatively localized, most of the region’s planning is based on the assumption that damage will be confined to one or two areas, several officials said.

Detailed plans to deal with a massive emergency -- one that displaces more than 300,000 people -- have not been developed since the end of the Cold War, said Stephen Sellers, head of Southern California operations for the state Office of Emergency Services.


Sellers and others say a tragedy on that scale goes beyond many worst-case scenarios and would include a chemical or nuclear attack, or a catastrophic earthquake on one of the faults that run directly under Los Angeles, such as Newport-Inglewood or Puente Hills.

Computer models released in May by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and 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.

The difficulty of dealing with the volume of displaced people and downed services after Hurricane Katrina has caused some officials of emergency response agencies to think anew.

Katrina “just shattered all of our planning assumptions,” said Sharon Grigsby, who heads bioterrorism response for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. “We certainly should be planning for a larger-scale event than we have focused on up to now.”

If major portions of the city have been damaged and huge numbers of people displaced or hurt, it could take several days -- perhaps up to a week -- for government and charitable agencies to respond, several officials said. For that reason, it is all the more important that residents keep survival kits at home, said Constance Perett, director of the Office of Emergency Management for Los Angeles County.

In the past, officials had recommended that residents keep three days’ worth of food, water, first aid and other items in a safe place in or near their homes. But in the wake of Katrina, Perett is recommending that everyone keep seven days’ worth of supplies.

During the most disruptive natural disaster in recent memory, the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the Red Cross was able to house 20,000 displaced people in tent cities, gyms, hotels and other locations. But the agency, which local officials rely on to provide shelter in emergencies, does not have agreements with large private venues like Staples Center that can hold many thousands of people.

Taking care of hundreds of thousands, said Kevin Leisher, the Red Cross response officer for Los Angeles, would be too much for the agency to handle on its own immediately after a catastrophic event.

“I can’t tell you that tonight I could open shelters for 300,000 people,” Leisher said. “I can’t give everybody a cot and a blanket.”

Damage from a major quake in the heart of Los Angeles -- where buildings and infrastructures are older and urban faults like Newport-Inglewood and Puente Hills stretch for miles through densely populated areas -- would dwarf the destruction from Northridge, said Lucy Jones, scientist in charge of Southern California for the U.S. Geological Survey.

“How do you get people to understand that Northridge was actually a little earthquake?” she said. “Puente Hills would be so much worse than Northridge.”

Los Angeles police have participated in dozens of disaster drills, said LAPD Chief William J. Bratton, and the department is developing a response plan meant to be a model for other municipalities.

But the LAPD has just 1,000 officers on the beat at any given time, Bratton said. During Monday’s power outage, when traffic lights went out throughout the city, Bratton said, he could not spare enough officers to properly direct and manage traffic at all the places where the signals were out -- and that was a relatively minor incident.

“We would be stretched very thin to do the multiplicity of things you have to do in a disaster -- assist the injured, secure facilities that are critical to you, prevent disorder,” Bratton said.

Such sober assessments come despite statements made by city and state leaders in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that California and the Los Angeles area is relatively well-prepared for a major disaster. On Thursday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced the formation of a panel to examine the city’s emergency plans, proclaiming that Los Angeles “is as prepared as any city in the nation.”

The region’s disaster response effort -- like the rest of the state’s -- would be highly decentralized: The Sheriff’s Department is responsible for evacuations; the Red Cross provides emergency shelters; a corps of volunteer doctors and nurses have promised to help people who are sick or injured.

Despite planning drills and other efforts, coordination among the many agencies responsible for providing aid would be a difficult task, especially if hundreds of thousands -- or even millions -- of people are affected.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has identified major streets and freeways that would be used in the event evacuations were necessary. Department officials believe that they could evacuate the entire county by using the region’s vast freeway network and calling on transportation agencies like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to provide buses.

But because it is impossible to know just where the damage will be, there are no specific plans for how an evacuation would occur, said Sgt. Paul Hanley, part of the sheriff’s emergency preparedness team.

The specific planning would occur in real time.

Similarly, the MTA has agreed to provide buses to evacuate people. But specific arrangements as to which buses, and where they should go, have not been made, Hanley said.

The miscommunication and mismanagement of initial evacuation and relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina have prompted calls for more planning for the type of unanticipated event that could take down whole areas of the city and county.

Both the city and county of Los Angeles have emergency operations centers -- built to withstand powerful earthquakes -- where officials plan to meet to coordinate aid. The sheriff, as the top police officer, will be in charge.

Local agencies are required by state law to develop detailed disaster relief and evacuation plans, and to set up a structure to ensure that the agencies responsible for emergency assistance can communicate properly.

Because some firefighters from other parts of the state could not connect their rigs to Oakland’s hydrants during a devastating fire there in 1991, the law also mandated that emergency agencies buy compatible equipment.

The state requirements have paid off, emergency workers said, in better coordination among the agencies that would work together in a catastrophic earthquake or other disaster.

Sellers, of the state Office of Emergency Services, said the importance of individual preparedness is a key lesson learned from Katrina, and he urged state and local governments to educate residents about the importance of having a survival kit. Even three days’ worth, he said, would help enormously.

Another unanswered question is how hospitals would respond during a mass evacuation.

Some of the most important lessons learned from the tragedy along the Gulf Coast come in the area of public health, said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of public health for Los Angeles County. In New Orleans, he said, hospitals were devastated, and the city was not able to provide for even the most basic of public health needs: controlling rats, providing clean water or containing and treating sewage.

Here, Fielding said, some of the health effects of Katrina are of lesser concern, because they resulted from entire communities being underwater. But, he said, a massive earthquake could easily stress basic sanitation services and cause injuries that would tax the region’s already struggling trauma care system.

More than 900 hospitals across California do not meet seismic safety standards, and the state recently extended a 2008 deadline for many of them to comply.

In addition, the county’s trauma care system is stretched extremely thin. There are just 13 trauma centers in the county, down from 22 in 1985.

Another agency stretched thin is the city of Los Angeles Emergency Preparedness Department, which has 18 employees. By contrast, New York has 125 employees, said Ellis Stanley, the department’s general manager.

Stanley said he was most concerned about Los Angeles’ ability to communicate effectively with residents about what to do during an emergency.

Noting that so many residents of New Orleans disregarded pleas to evacuate, Stanley said it was important to spend time and money cultivating trust among city residents -- particularly those in communities where people distrust the government and the police.

Stunned by the massive devastation and humbled by the difficulty of responding to the needs of so many people, the Red Cross is reexamining all of its assumptions about disaster relief, said Roger Dixon, chief executive of the Los Angeles chapter.

One of the most important needs, he said, was manpower: nationwide, the Red Cross plans to recruit 40,000 new volunteers to deal with future emergencies.

“I think this disaster will cause ... all disaster responders and disaster preparedness people to rethink and reaffirm the viability of our planning,” Dixon said. “If we don’t learn from this, we’ll see this happen all over again.”