Earthquake preparedness slowly gaining in California

It would be difficult to find an adult resident of California who is not aware that major earthquakes have occurred in the state and that there are predictions there will be another soon.

It is not at all difficult, however, to find Californians who haven't a notion of how to prepare themselves to cope with the effects of a destructive quake.

David Hedman, a graduate student at Stanford University in Paolo Alto, says he was shocked when he discovered just how ill-prepared many residents of the San Francisco Bay Area are to protect their lives and property if there is an earthquake.

Mr. Hedman, whose major field is industrial engineering, is the student representative on Stanford's board of trustees. He was on a committee that studied Stanford's earthquake preparedness. As the result of the group's recommendations, the university recently bought $60 million worth of earthquake insurance and embarked on a program of training faculty and students in how to respond if a quake occurs.

Stanford, which came close to abandoning its Palo Alto campus after suffering severe damage in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, also is making major structural changes in some of its buildings.

As a result of his experience with the Stanford earthquake committee, Hedman decided that something should be done to help people prepare for quakes. He and some 15 student assistants were given the go-ahead, office space, start-up funds -- and college credit -- to set up the Earthquake Safety Hotline.

Here's how it works: Residents in the Bay Area call the hotline number (415- 329-1800). They are sent a packet containing suggested steps to take and instructions for doing so. The packet costs $4.50 and includes at least 10 separate items including a "readiness checklist," a list of first-aid equipment, an "Earthquake Emergency Guide" with simple, clear instructions, and steps for forming a neighborhood cooperative for earthquake safety.

Community and neighborhood organization is basic to state planning for coping with catastrophic earthquakes, say both Hedman and William Whitson, chairman of Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.'s Emergency Earthquake Task Force. They use the same phrase to describe the immediate aftermath of a severe quake. For three to five days after such an occurrence, they assert, "there won't be any government" as far as residents of heavily damaged areas are concerned. Devastation to highways, bridges, utilities, and communication, as well as flooding, will prevent normal emergency aid from immediately reaching people in the worst areas.

Thus, Hedman points out, families and neighborhoods will be thrown on their own resources for an indefinite time.

After taking care of personal injuries, water is the most essential need, he explains: "You can go for a few days without food, but not water -- and especially n ot children."

The Stanford hotline has an answer to this problem -- a 15-gallon container designed to specifications provided by designers at the university and manufactured by a firm in Houston. Cylindrical, very thick-walled, and with no protruding parts to be broken off, the container is capable of sustaining heavy blows without cracking. Water can be kept in it indefinitely, although the hotline recommends changing the water every two years. Hedman points out that glass or the plastic milk containers some people use for storing water are not safe for long-term storage.

The hotline charges $24.50 for the can, delivered. Besides covering the cost of manufacture and delivery, the fee helps meet hotline expenses. A five-gallon can for people who live alone and may not have much storage room is also available, though it is not as sturdy.

The 15-gallon can is designed to provide water for a family of four for up to a week. Hedman points out that it can serve as well for other emergencies, such as nuclear attack, flood, hurricane, or tornado.

There is a second phase of the hotline service: home inspections. Hedman and others say that many houses (and other buildings) are seriously deficient in their ability to withstand an earthquake. Some of the worst problems: houses not bolted to foundations, so that they may actually slide off in a quake; gas lines that are not "free" -- that is, they are cemented into foundations or walls so that they may be broken; large objects like refrigerators and water heaters that are not secured.

Hedman says it's amazing how many people don't even know where and how to shut off their gas and electricity.

Stanford's Department of Civil Engineering trains graduate engineering students to make the home inspections. Hedman says they currently are doing about seven a day -- sometimes up to 15 -- and could handle more. Cost of this service depends on size and location of the house.

As the Stanford Earthquake Hotline gets increased publicity, much of it by word of mouth, calls are mounting, says Hedman. He adds that, even if one doesn't believe a major earthquake is likely, it is just common sense to be prepared -- and it costs relatively little.

Mr. Whitson of the Earthquake Emergency Task Force agrees. He says there is definitely a place for "responsible private enterprise" in the earthquake preparedness field, and his office is trying to encourage it. HoweveR, he says he knows of no other service in the state now like the Stanford hotline.

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