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Chile earthquake: How California would fare

If California experienced an earthquake like the one that rocked Chile, strict building codes and a culture of preparedness are on its side, but citizens have to take responsibility, observers say.

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Dr. Maurice Ramirez, founder and CEO of consulting firm High Alert International says California is as ready as any modern region can be for a major earthquake, which he defines as a 7.0 or above on the Richter scale, but education lags behind.

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First lady Maria Shriver Schwarzenegger has been an active proponent of community and individual preparedness in California since her husband took office in 2003, Mr. Ramirez notes. “While this has certainly helped raise the level of awareness, individual preparedness and self education [are] still an individual matter,” he says. “Californians are only slightly better prepared than the average American for disaster. The same is true of Floridians and hurricanes.”

Like other states with a high risk of large numbers of persons displaced by disaster, California has shelters and medical stations designated at the local, county, state, regional, and federal levels. These are in addition to facilities provided by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the Red Cross, and Faith Based Organizations (FBOs) such as ACTS World Relief.

In the wake of Haiti and Chile earthquakes, California should incorporate basic disaster preparedness in school curriculum starting in kindergargen, Ramirez says.

“The National Fire Safety Initiative has saved countless lives in household fires, not to mention workplace fires, and all evidence indicates that similar success would be seen with the same program instituted for disaster preparedness at the kindergarten level.”

Another issue on which residents seem ill-informed is earthquake insurance, according to Pete Moraga, a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Network of California, a non-profit, non-lobbying media relations organization. He says the massive earthquake drills that took place in 2008 and 2009 – participated in by millions of school children – raised public consciousness of how to protect yourself during an earthquake. But polls by his organization show residents are woefully underinsured – and many don’t know it.

“Since the Northridge Earthquake here in 1994, the percentage of people with earthquake insurance has dropped from 30 percent to 12.5 percent,” says Moraga. And a 2006 audit and poll of insurance showed that 31 percent of Californians thought they had earthquake insurance, when the actual amount was only 13 percent.

Ramirez says the very definition of “earthquake prepared” needs to be examined.

“It is possible to be disaster prepared, meaning ready to respond and recover to a disaster generically, but the concept of being 'EQ prepared' implies that the earthquake will have less effect on you than your neighbor who is not 'EQ prepared.' This is simply not true at any level of quake. Prepare to respond, prepared to survive, prepare to recover, and prepare to move on," he says. "That is disaster preparedness.”

IN PICTURES: Images from the 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile