Lessons in earthquake preparedness. Sobered after '83 quake, California town learns to take precautions

The flaxen hills surrounding this little central-California farm town look too velvety smooth to harbor the kind of destructive seismic force that leveled the downtown two years ago. But things aren't always what they seem, say state officials who are trying to chip away at public complacency regarding earthquakes. Not even geologists knew about the fault that sent a jolt of magnitude 6.7 on the Richter scale through town on the afternoon of May 2, 1983.

Further, these officials add, for all the sophistication and self-sufficiency of the busy urban hives dotting the fault lines of this state, none are adequately prepared for a major earthquake.

Earthquake Preparedness Week, which continues in California through Sunday, is the state's first broad-based push to get individuals -- not just government agencies -- to seriously consider what a damaging quake would mean to them.

``It's meant to raise the consciousness to understand that an earthquake can happen anywhere,'' explains Peter Stromberg, a seismic safety specialist at the California Seismic Safety Commission.

And nowhere in recent years has a California community had to face this issue as seriously as Coalinga. Nor have state agencies had as complete a microcosm as they have had here to help them see the larger picture about earthquake preparedness in California.

``No one knew. . . . You never think something like this would happen,'' recalls Sherree Buckner, whose 60-year-old house was one of 309 destroyed. She admits she and her husband ignored the comparatively mild 5.4-magnitude quake that rattled the town just six months before the big 1983 quake.

With insurance money, and a little of their own, the Buckners have built a well-appointed home where the old one stood. Extra reinforcing was built into the foundation, and they believe the house is ``quakeproof.''

Most people in this town of 7,400 have a very sober approach to quakes now, and state emergency officials would like to see other Californians adopt a vicarious concern for preparedness -- not just an after-the-fact approach.

``There is more than a 50 percent chance of a major earthquake affecting the state in the next 30 years,'' says Anita Garcia, spokeswoman for the governor's Office of Emergency Services. This forecast of the US Geological Survey (USGS) is often quoted, and is well known among Californians who have become familiar with the sound of chattering dishes and the feeling of swaying buildings. But the vagueness of that forecast may account for the lack of urgency Californians feel about preparedness.

``Most know what to do when the ground starts shaking. But very few have done anything to prepare'' for what happens after the shaking stops, Ms. Garcia says.

Similarly, a 1983 California Poll showed that while more than half the public thought a major earthquake in their area was extremely likely, the same proportion said they don't worry at all about an earthquake.

More-exact forecasting of quakes would give citizens a tangible problem to tackle. Though forecasting has been an inexact science, the USGS had its first official forecast validated two weeks ago by a a two-tiered review panel of state and federal scientists. This review process lays the groundwork for future, more frequent forecasts. This, the first ``official'' earthquake forecast, says a 5.5- to 6-magnitude quake will occur between now and 1993 in the Parkfield area of the San Andreas fault (about 30 miles southwest of here).

Robert Semple, public information officer for Coalinga, is skeptical of the value of forecasting even by reputable scientists. He says the fault near Coalinga wasn't discovered until after the 1983 quake, and adds, ``Predicting it within eight years is useless to me. All it does is drive down land values in that area.'' Besides, he says, forecasts don't preclude the need for preparedness.

Coalinga's experience points to some basic measures every California household should take, emergency officials say. Everyone should know how to shut off utilities to prevent fires. A 72-hour supply of canned food and water should be kept on hand, along with flashlights.

Coalinga also taught emergency-services officials about the sort of confusion that can occur when various agencies -- police, fire, sheriff, National Guard, and state social services media -- descend on a community that lacks basic services such as phones, power, and water.

Emergency procedures ran relatively smoothly here because damage was confined to an isolated area, but they might have operated differently on an urban scale, Mr. Stromberg says.

``It was like . . . one of the most real training exercises you could have without the loss of life,'' Mr. Semple says. ``Drinking water was shipped in by businesses; we had assistance from everyone. But in a bigger city, Burger King isn't going to be able to feed breakfast to everyone [free] like they did here.''

This week's activities include drills to coordinate emergency services of various agencies. Though statewide spending for seismic-safety programs has doubled in the past year to $26 million, Stromberg says this amounts to 6 cents per person, compared with the $1 per person Japan spends for earthquake preparedness.

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