07/30/2008

Calif. quake tests mass emergency preparedness

Related article: Homeland Security: An overview of the national response plan

By Gillian Flaccus
The Associated Press

CHINO HILLS, Calif. — Despite shaking a large swath of Southern California, a magnitude-5.4 earthquake was not the "Big One" that scientists have long feared. Still, it rattled nerves, causing people to vow to step up their emergency preparations.

The quake, which rocked the region from Los Angeles to San Diego on Tuesday, caused only limited damage and minor injuries, and served as a reminder of the seismic danger below sprawling freeways and subdivisions.

The temblor's epicenter was located just outside Chino Hills, 29 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles in San Bernardino County, and it was felt as far east as Las Vegas. Dozens of aftershocks followed, the largest a magnitude-3.8.

"We were really fortunate this time," said Capt. Jeremy Ault of the Chino Valley Independent Fire District. "It's a good opportunity to remember that we live in earthquake country. This is part of living in Southern California and we need to make sure we're prepared."

Chino Hills was incorporated in 1991, so much of the construction is newer and built to modern safety standards, city spokeswoman Denise Cattern said. There were no reports of harm in the city of 80,000, she said, although cell phone service in the area was briefly disrupted.

"We have all the latest building standards and that probably made a difference," she said.

The magnitude-5.9 Whittier Narrows quake in 1987 was the last big shake centered in the region. Scientists were trying to determine which fault ruptured Tuesday, but they believe it is part of the same system of faults. The 1987 earthquake heavily damaged older buildings and houses in communities east of Los Angeles.

As strongly as it was felt, Tuesday's quake was far less powerful than the deadly magnitude-6.7 Northridge earthquake that toppled bridges and buildings in 1994. That was the last damaging temblor in Southern California, though not the biggest. A 7.1 quake struck the desert in 1999.

Derek Black, a 19-year-old personal trainer, said it was the first large earthquake he remembered despite living in the area since birth.

Black said he was helping a client do pull-downs when the floor started to rumble. He grabbed onto a weight machine and turned toward the wall, which was covered in floor-to-ceiling mirrors.

"The mirrors were rippling all the way down," he said. "Seeing it in the mirrors was what made me realize, `Geez, this is huge.'"

TVs suspended from the ceiling were swinging back and forth as people evacuated the gym. The mirrors buckled but didn't break, he said.

The heaviest shaking was northwest of the epicenter near suburban Diamond Bar, said Thomas Heaton, director of the earthquake engineering and research laboratory at Caltech. He said all buildings constructed in the region since the 1930s should withstand the kind of shaking felt Tuesday.

The earthquake had about 1 percent of the energy of the Northridge quake, he said.

"People have forgotten, I think, what earthquakes feel like," said Kate Hutton, a seismologist at Caltech. "So I think we should probably look at it as an earthquake drill."

The state Office of Emergency Services in Sacramento received scattered reports of minor infrastructure damage, including broken water mains and gas lines.

"I thank God there have not been any reports of serious injuries or damage to properties," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told a televised press conference. "People understandably are very nervous."

Minor structural damage was reported throughout Los Angeles, along with five minor injuries and people stuck in elevators, said City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, serving as acting mayor. She said there was flooding in one department store.

The jolt caused a fire but no injuries at a Southern California Edison electrical substation in La Habra, about 12 miles southwest of the epicenter, spokesman Paul Klein said. Damage there and to other equipment led to some power outages in Chino Hills, Chino, Diamond Bar and Pomona, he said.

To prepare for the "Big One," scientists and emergency planners in the fall will hold what is billed as the largest earthquake drill in the country. It will be based on a hypothetical magnitude-7.8 temblor. Earlier this year, scientists calculated that California faces a 99.7 percent chance of a magnitude-6.7 quake or larger in the next 30 years.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press

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