The First 15 Minutes After the Big One 

Who dies in Los Angeles, and why, when the earth quakes on the San Andreas Fault?

Thursday, Nov 24 2011

Peggy Gooday sits paralyzed on her sofa as the world outside shrieks with an unearthly roar. The sound of millions of bits of lumber, metal, concrete and glass twisting and shattering echoes as downtown Los Angeles plunges into darkness. Gooday's TV is launched off its pedestal and smashes at her feet. Paintings jump from their hangers. Her clattering cup of tea falls off the coffee table and splashes onto her carpet.

Gooday's eighth-floor apartment in the historic Alexandria Hotel at Fifth and Spring streets is convulsing like a paint shaker, and her emotions race from fear to fascination and back. All she can do is sit, immobile, in her suddenly pitch-dark domicile.

Gooday says: "I would probably try to grab my glasses above anything. ... I am not prepared, I don't have a radio — or a flashlight."

click to flip through (4) ILLUSTRATION BY PATRICK FARICY

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The Big One, the rupturing of the San Andreas Fault, which will bring Southern California to its knees, has just begun.

This scenario is hypothetical. Gooday and others were asked by L.A. Weekly to envision their actions during the 15 to 20 minutes after the earthquake — a crucial window of time in which the fates of thousands are sealed, and in which civilians must rely on themselves. Emergency crews will be rushing to major catastrophes, and cellphones and landlines will be dead or jammed.

To determine which communities will be left in ruins and how people will react, the Weekly interviewed some two dozen geologists, sociologists, researchers and others; examined detailed permits showing which buildings have not been quake-retrofitted; and analyzed the ShakeOut Scenario, a 312-page report by 300 scientists at the United States Geological Survey (USGS), which explains the likely consequences of a colossal quake on the southern San Andreas Fault.

The USGS, based at Caltech, predicts the chance of a dreaded Big One hitting in the next 30 years at about 37 percent. That's high. An earthquake struck Virginia this year — yet the area had been given just a 4 percent chance of an occurrence.

The Weekly used the ShakeOut Scenario's postulated 7.8 earthquake and set the disaster date on a cool November night during Thanksgiving week of 2011, at precisely 7 p.m.; its epicenter is 100 miles away, in the dying desert hamlet of Bombay Beach on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea.

Scientists say the rupturing of the strike-slip fault will last an interminable 55 seconds. The 1994 Northridge quake, described by some as "endless," lasted seven seconds.

The nearly one-minute rupture will be followed in some areas by up to four terrifying minutes of seismic waves as the Los Angeles Basin — with its 30,000-foot-thick layer of sediment upon which about 10 million people live — shudders like Jell-O, violently jostling everything built upon it.

Precise predictions about which buildings will pancake or crumble, and whose neighborhoods will burn, are impossible.

"It's a fool's game to guess too much what area will be hurt the most," says Kate Long, earthquake and tsunami program specialist for California Gov. Jerry Brown, "but the places with older, brick buildings, like Hollywood, are bound to suffer significant damage."

"If I had to guess a place that would be hit hardest," says Caltech engineering professor Thomas Heaton, "it would have to be San Bernardino."

That city, recently rated the second poorest in the nation behind Detroit, immediately borders the San Andreas Fault. San Bernardino building official Justin Lease says that, after rescinding its retrofitting ordinance in 1999 because property owners said it was too costly, the San Bernardino City Council allowed about 100 buildings to forgo work needed to prevent collapse.

But beyond such guesses, general truths are known about how people will die and which areas will be destroyed in this inevitable, cataclysmic event.

In L.A. proper, the USGS Shaking Intensity Map shows that the harder-hit areas will be the Eastside, downtown, South L.A. and central districts such as Hollywood. The Wilshire District, the Westside, San Fernando Valley and the coast will be better off — largely because the San Andreas cuts through San Bernardino County and northern parts of L.A. County and thus is farther from these areas.

After the initial shock wreaks havoc, minutes of long-lasting seismic waves will indiscriminately damage scores of Southland cities. Within Los Angeles County, 73 of the 86 cities — including most of Los Angeles itself — are perched atop the L.A. Basin deposit, whose sediment is so deep it could fully immerse Mount Everest.

Kimberly Shoaf, a UCLA disaster expert who was among the 300 scientists who created the ShakeOut study, says the rupture and seismic waves will set off thousands of fires, which will kill 50 percent of those who die from the Big One. Some 70 percent of those blazes will be in residential areas.

Despite extensive efforts at earthquake retrofitting, 40 percent of the deaths — and 90 percent of the injuries — will be caused by building collapses and lesser damage, such as falling decorative beams or air-conditioning units. The remaining 10 percent of deaths will be transportation-related: Cars, trucks and buses will crash, fall or be flattened; rail and subway cars will derail or be crushed; bridges and roads will buckle or topple.

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