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Riot Shows Southern California Unprepared for the ‘Big One’

May 11, 1992

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ The Los Angeles riots showed that Southern California has more to do to prepare for the Big One, the catastrophic earthquake expected in the coming decades, scientists and public officials say.

″The riots demonstrated that many of the emergency services we rely upon were not able to come through in a timely fashion,″ said Kerry Sieh, a California Institute of Technology geologist.

The rioting, looting and arson of more than a week ago left 53 people dead and more than 2,300 injured. Damage could reach $1 billion. Thousands of fires broke out, some neighborhoods were without electricity for days, and hospitals and emergency workers were strained.

Casualties, emergency response problems, fires, food shortages and damage to buildings, utilities and transportation would be much more severe and widespread if a major earthquake hit Southern California, scientists said.

The riot taught that ″in both natural disasters and other large-scale emergencies, we need to be more effective in assessing as rapidly as possible how best to address the problem,″ said Richard Andrews, California’s emergency services director.

A 1988 Geological Survey report estimated that an earthquake registering a powerful 7.5 to 8.0 on the Richter scale has a 60 percent chance of occurring on the southern San Andreas Fault by the year 2018.

A decade-old federal study estimated that a 7.5 quake on Los Angeles’ Newport-Inglewood Fault could kill up to 21,000 people and cause injuries requiring hospitalization of up to 84,000.

The government also estimated that an 8.3 quake on the San Andreas about 50 miles from Los Angeles could leave 3,000 to 14,000 people dead, require the hospitalization of 12,000 to 55,000, and cause $17 billion in damage.

While the riot left most homes intact, the Big One would make 250,000 to 400,000 homes uninhabitable - either seriously damaged or lacking water or other utilities - for three weeks, according to a 1987 study.

And while firefighters received more than 5,500 calls during the riot, a 1987 study by engineer Charles Scawthorn estimated a 6.5 quake on the Newport- Inglewood Fault would ignite 30,000 house fires.

The riot gave firefighters ″an idea what a major earthquake would be like,″ said Scawthorn, now vice president at an engineering firm that does consulting work on earthquakes. ″The big difference is that the Los Angeles Fire Department ought to figure out how they would handle the situation without water.″

A huge quake probably would severely disrupt water, electric, natural gas, phone and transportation services over a wide area for weeks, compared with localized outages of a few days during the riot, said Geological Survey seismologists Tom Heaton and Lucy Jones.

Andrews said studies suggest there is no widespread looting after natural disasters.

But political scientist Donald W. Bray of California State University at Los Angeles wrote recently, ″If a disastrous quake occurred, we good folks in the suburbs could be capable of looting supermarkets.″

″People might use this riot as a chance to think about earthquake preparedness″ and stockpile food and water, keep cash at home and avoid empty gas tanks, Jones said.

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