The ‘big one’ is inevitable. Make plans to prevent disaster

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Robin Estrin

“Although the earthquake is inevitable, the disaster is not. And many of the losses can be prevented,” says seismologist Lucy Jones. Photo by Shutterstock.

Rescuers in Turkey and Syria continue to search for people trapped in the rubble after Monday’s series of devastating earthquakes. More than 6000 are dead and that toll is likely to continue climbing. LA County is sending specially-trained firefighters, canine search-and-rescue teams, and structural engineers to help. The Turkish Consulate is also asking for donations of items like blankets, tents, and winter clothing. 

The disaster unfolding is a stark reminder that an earthquake capable of just as much destruction is predicted to hit California. How prepared are we? 

An earthquake of that magnitude would be determined by the length of the fault that moves, says Lucy Jones, seismologist and author of “The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them).” 

“For our 7.8, we modeled a fault that was 200 miles long extending from the Salton Sea up to … north of Los Angeles. And so most of Southern California is getting pretty strong shaking,” Jones explains. 

The San Andreas fault in California is similar to the East Anatolian fault, which was the site of Turkey’s earthquake. Both are known as strike-slip faults and extend vertically into the earth, and the ground moves sideways during a quake. 

“This is important because every point on the fault surface gives off energy. So when it comes all the way to the surface, that means now we have people that are very close to where the energy is coming off the fault. And since it dies off rapidly with distance, that means we get much stronger shaking.”

Jones hopes that California’s response is better than Turkey’s. However, both countries use the same building codes and train many of their engineers together.

However, a difference lies in the degree to which these codes are enforced. “I have recently learned that in many places in Turkey, because the cities themselves are so poor, they can't hire inspectors. And so the inspectors that ensure that the building code was actually matched — end up being hired by the developers, and that's an inherent conflict of interest that really leads to a problem.” 

She notes that building codes are only as strong as the regulations that were in place when the structure was built.

Jones explains that in SoCal, when modeling what a big San Andres fault quake would be like, estimates in 2008 showed that 1,500 buildings would completely collapse, 300,000 would be damaged, and water infrastructure damage would take up to six months to repair. Aftershocks also have the potential to impact the entire state.

So what should we do? 

“Don't focus too much on how bad it's going to be. Because that's a way to paralyze yourself. … Rather, recognize that although the earthquake is inevitable, the disaster is not. And many of the losses can be prevented.” 

Jones also recommends talking to friends, family, and neighbors about contingency plans. 

“Do you know how you're going to find your kids after the earthquake? Go talk to your neighbors. You're going … to have to help each other when the earthquake is happening. Maybe go talk at your kids’ school or at your church or synagogue. Those are people that already care about you. … And if we strengthen those connections, we're going to do a lot better when the earthquake actually hits.”




Michell Eloy