Not if, but when. That’s the consensus around the potential for an earthquake of mega proportions hitting California within the next three decades.
The Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management, of which state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, is chair, held an informational meeting on Wednesday, July 19, titled “California’s Next Mega-Quake: Assessing the State’s Preparedness and Response Strategy.” State senators were presented with an overview of California’s seismic safety programs and policies, corresponding with three phases of earthquake response: known seismic hazards prior to an earthquake, releasing timely and effective information post-earthquake, and collecting data during an event.
The good news is that California has several contingencies in place should (when) the next big one occur, including responding to damage to infrastructure, loss of access to water and wastewater and loss of electrical power, according to a background paper released as part of the informational hearing.
The bad news is that in 2014, it was found that a fault that runs directly through downtown Ventura has the potential to trigger a so-called megaquake with the epicenter directly under City Hall, replete with the possibility for tsunamis, an upgrade in power from what was previously thought. The new assessment brought the fault’s potential from producing a 6.2 magnitude potential earthquake on the Richter scale to potentially producing an earthquake 7.0 in magnitude or greater.
According to Ventura County Sherriff’s Office of Emergency Services Assistant Director Kevin McGowan, the 0.8 difference might not look like a lot, but an earthquake over 7.0 has the high potential to trigger tsunamis and thus becomes more dangerous for the county’s coastal zones.
“The [United States Geological Survey] and [California Geological Survey] are looking at this very closely because there’s a lot of ramifications for that new information,” said McGowan.
Because the research had been released while the Office of Emergency Services, all nine cities, various special districts, fire and police departments and others were working to create the 2015 Ventura County Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan (which is released every five years), the new information is not included in the text, pending validation by state and federal agencies.
“What we’re interested in is the most relevant, best data we can get our hands on, so we can plan for the most likely scenario,” said McGowan, who alluded to the plan being a “living” document that will be updated when new information is available. Though the 2014 research is not part of the plan, McGowan says that the Office of Emergency Services is well aware of it and has had talks and had experts visit county offices to discuss the ramifications.
The Emergency Services’ contingency plan incorporates responses to various disasters, such as wildfires and man-made disasters, but McGowan says that earthquakes can cause by far the most trouble and be the most expensive to remedy.
“It really goes way beyond what we experience with recovery with pretty much any other natural disaster because of the widespread damage.”
Jackson says that her take-away from Wednesday’s informational session was that California is actively involved in planning, preparation and mitigation in the event of a megaquake. Annually, she says, the state spends roughly $3.6 billion in repairs due to earthquake damage.
“If a quake were to occur we want to make sure buildings are as strongly constructed as humanly possible, that our infrastructure which will clearly be impacted is protected as much as we can do that,” said Jackson. “Mother Nature is a much stronger force than all of us, but what we do know is that there have been quakes, megaquakes, and the impacts really differ based upon the kinds of preparations that are taken.”
Jackson refers to the two earthquakes that struck Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2010 and 2011. The first, on Sept. 4, 2010, measured 7.1 on the Richter scale, with an epicenter 25 miles west of the country’s second most populous city. Only one death was reported as one man died of a heart attack. Damage to infrastructure was minimal, attributed to there being few remaining unreinforced buildings.
A second earthquake in February 2011, however, resulted in 183 deaths and untold structural damage. The 6.3 magnitude earthquake’s epicenter was just 6 miles from the city of Christchurch.
Much is being done at the state level to prepare for California’s next tremor, says Jackson, including structural reinforcement plans, regulations prohibiting construction on faults; and a system is being prepared that would automatically slow trains down in the event of an earthquake predicted by the early warning system.
An earthquake early warning system serving California, Oregon and Washington was spared the axe via congressional committee just two weeks ago, with $10 million in funding approved by a U.S. House appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Department of the Interior and Environmental Protection Agency. President Donald Trump had previously promised to cut the funding; Jackson noted that California makes up 17 percent of the country’s GDP, a somewhat veiled reminder that should California suffer a catastrophe, the rest of the country will feel the effects.
An earthquake early warning system already exists in Japan, where residents receive an emergency alert via text message, giving them a matter of seconds to prepare.
In Ventura County, the VC-Alert Emergency Notification System alerts residents of threats to the “health and safety of residents,” including earthquakes and other disasters.
But where Jackson’s real concern lies is in the lack of awareness that many California residents have when it comes to earthquake preparedness. She says that one of her top priorities when the California Senate’s session resumes in August will be to work on an awareness campaign.
“Do people know that they should have at least three days of food and water or a water source that doesn’t come out of the tap? Do they know how to connect with each other and make emergency plans with kids at school?” said Jackson, just a few of her concerns, which include the fact that only roughly 10 percent of California homeowners have earthquake insurance policies and that an electric can opener shouldn’t be the only type of can opener in your home in the event of an extended power outage.
“We really need to be helping Californians take the steps necessary to protect themselves and their families when the big quake comes,” said Jackson. “Awareness is power; being forewarned is being forearmed. Having that information helps people be able to help themselves, which I believe is, frankly, very important.”
For more information on earthquake preparedness, visit www.readyventuracounty.org.