‘Big One’ will devastate California

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The “Big One” — as earthquake scientists imagine it in a detailed, first-of-its-kind script — unzips California’s mighty San Andreas Fault north of the Mexican border. In less than two minutes, Los Angeles and its sprawling suburbs are shaking like a bowl of jelly.

The jolt from the magnitude-7.8 temblor lasts for three minutes — 15 times longer than the disastrous 1994 Northridge quake.

Water and sewer pipes crack. Power fails. Part of major highways break. Some high-rise steel frame buildings and older concrete and brick structures collapse.

Hospitals are swamped with 50,000 injured as all of Southern California reels from a blow on par with the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina: $200 billion in damage to the economy, and 1,800 dead.

Only about 700 of those people are victims of building collapses. Many others are lost to the 1,600 fires burning across the region — too many for firefighters to tackle at once.

A team of about 300 scientists, governments, first responders and industries worked for more than a year to create a realistic crisis scenario that can be used for preparedness, including a statewide drill planned later this year. Published by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and California Geological Survey, it is to be released today at a House Natural Resources subcommittee on energy and mineral resources meeting in Washington.

Researchers caution that it is not a prediction, but the possibility of a major California quake in the next few decades is very real.

Last month, the USGS reported that the Golden State has a 46 percent chance of a 7.5 or larger quake in the next 30 years and that such a quake probably would hit Southern California. The Northridge quake, which killed 72 people and caused $25 billion in damage, was much smaller at magnitude 6.7.

“We cannot keep on planning for Northridge,” said USGS seismologist Lucy Jones. “The science tells that it’s not the worst we’re going to face.”

USGS geophysicist Kenneth Hudnut said scientists wanted to create a plausible narrative and avoided science fiction like the 2004 TV miniseries “10.5” about an Armageddon quake on the West Coast.

“We didn’t want to stretch credibility,” Mr. Hudnut said. “We didn’t want to make it a worst-case scenario, but one that would have major consequences.”

The figures are based on the assumption that the state takes no continued action to retrofit flimsy buildings or update emergency plans. The projected loss is far less than the magnitude-7.9 killer that caused more than 40,000 deaths last week in western China, in part because California has stricter building code enforcement and retrofit programs.

The scenario is focused on the San Andreas Fault, the 800-mile boundary where the Pacific and North American plates grind against each other. The fault is the source of some of the largest earthquakes in state history, including the monstrous magnitude-7.8 quake that reduced San Francisco to ashes and killed 3,000 people in 1906.

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