PREPARATION FOR QUAKES BEATS PREDICTION

The Los Angeles earthquake proved that being prepared - pinpointing quake danger areas and strengthening building codes - can save lives, a group of seismologists say. Their opinions were detailed at an international conference in New Zealand.

Putting more effort into preparation for a temblor can pay more dividends than spending resources trying to predict the next ``Big One,'' they say.

This was best illustrated in the 1980s when two earthquakes of the same strength - 7.0 on the open-ended Richter scale - struck in sharply different areas. In a poor region of Armenia, 25,000 people died. In California, 63 people perished. Why the disparity?

``It was because the buildings fell down in Armenia; they didn't fall down in California,'' says Peter Basham of the Geological Survey of Canada, one of 400 earthquake experts who met recently in Wellington, New Zealand. ``They [the buildings in Armenia] were houses of cards made out of concrete slabs. You shake them, and it all falls down.''

The recent quake in Los Angeles, which measured 6.6 on the Richter scale, killed at least 55 people and caused damage of as much as $30 billion. Experts say the death and destruction could have been worse without efforts to ``quake-proof'' the region's infrastructure.

But the Los Angeles quake also showed that seismologists are no closer to being able to predict where and when large earthquakes will strike, a United States scientist says.

``We don't really understand the nature of the process fully enough to be able to make any useful predictions,'' says Bill Ellsworth, a research seismologist with the US Geological Survey.

``Physical conditions are so complicated that only in a very few cases is it likely we will be able to predict [earthquakes] in a useful way,'' Bruce Bolt of the University of California-Berkeley says.

But scientists say they can help local communities prepare for earthquakes by creating maps showing the greatest danger spots. This helps in planning building codes.

Mr. Basham began work on the Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program in 1991. It divides the world into nine regions, sets up regional quake centers, and creates technical guidelines for hazard assessment.

One of the main objectives of the effort is to produce a global earthquake hazard map.

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