Opinion: Hurricane Harvey Is a Reminder That We Need to Wake Up About Earthquakes

Building damaged in 1994 Northridge earthquake

This is a subject I cannot leave alone …

…. not only because of its current relevancy but because of my past intimate experiences with three different disaster scenes and later professional involvement in emergency management. The Texas coastal storm, Hurricane Harvey and Southern California earthquakes may seem absolutely dissimilar – but there are many parallels in both the preparation and response elements to consider.

It very likely falls on deaf ears, but the warnings from the earthquake scientists keep coming and they are louder and more positive. The people at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA and other agencies have refined their methods of mapping and predicting earthquakes and have even come up with an early warning system – even a 20-second warning may save lives. Coincidentally, there have been many discussions, but little action, in considering our Gulf Coast and its vulnerability to severe storms. The history of death and destruction in that region reaches back into the 18th Century.

In November of 2015, the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University, concerned about the survival of the huge chemical industry around Houston-Galveston, published a strong warning about the potential devastating effects of hurricanes and storm surges on the industry. Atlantic magazine’s recent piece (August 24, 2017), “Is Texas ready for hurricane Harvey?” detailed what was likely to happen. Further, a recent Newsweek article spoke about the lack of city planning in general in Houston, claiming that will lead to a chaotic response to disasters. There are far too many articles, books, videos detailing the effects of a major earthquake in Southern California to reference here. Suffice to say, like a bad romance, memories of past earthquakes soon fade.

At any emergency scene, people we refer to as “convergent volunteers” always show up wanting to help. Problem usually is that the desire exceeds the knowledge required to be of much assistance. Helping — to haul a fire hose line is one thing, tending to injured and panicked people is another. However, if on-scene managers can properly deal with them, extra hands are welcome. The response in Texas by so many ordinary citizens is exemplary and illustrates how such volunteers can be used when the Incident Command calls for them – as did happen when the great need for boats and volunteers to be used for search and rescue was answered in a resolute and steady fashion. Made all the difference.

In a major earthquake scenario we may find that such volunteers will not exist in any numbers because they will be taking care of themselves. Many communities have resident volunteers trained to assist in every area from the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to directing traffic until trained responders such as the Red Cross, police and fire personnel can appear – which could take days in the worst case. Community Emergency Response Teams – CERT – are now in hundreds of cities and provide a trained corps of local volunteers. West Hollywood once sponsored CERT and we had over 200 residents trained. Our goal then was to have one CERT member on each block and, perhaps, even one in each condo or apartment building. The city withdrew its sponsorship over concerns of liability. However, CERT training continues under the auspices of the L.A. County Fire Department. Information about CERT training may be obtained from WeReCERT.org or the city’s Public Safety Office.

Not every individual or household may have the resources to rush out and stock up on emergency supplies. In the past I have suggested that neighbors can pool resources and purchase storage. If nothing else, have water. It is generally considered that water needs are one gallon per person per day. Another major concern is human waste. If your water line is cut off you can flush your toilet only once. And don’t forget your animals’ needs. There are many sources of information of how to plan for survival in an emergency. I boiled them all down to a short list:

— Water – you cannot have enough!

— Toilet and sanitary items

— Try to keep a half tank of gas in your car at all times – if you have to evacuate, you’ll use most of the fuel simply sitting in traffic getting away.

— Cash – if possible keep $200 in fives and ones and be wary of vendors taking advantage of the old supply and demand rule to charge extreme prices

— Sturdy shoes to get you through rubble

— A “Go Bag”, to contain any important documents you may need to take if you evacuate

— Your phone or a small radio – and batteries or charger

— A knowledge of where local resources such as shelters are likely to be located

— Best of all – do some advance planning to survive the event.

The parallels between the response to Harvey and a major earthquake are actually the same and depend upon the degree of individual readiness, municipal planning (or lack thereof) and organized county, state or federal response. Keep in mind that the principal disaster threat to WeHo is a major earthquake, but we could also face large fires, a destructive El Nino and civil disturbances. We are not immune from any of those events. It is interesting to note that as many as 13,000 refugees from the ruined sections of New Orleans following hurricane Katrina were moved to Houston. I wonder how they managed this time.

And, I do not know what the city will do as public outreach for National Preparedness Month in September, but I’d like to see at least one event at a venue like Plummer Park’s Fiesta Hall, where vendors could show along with a series of speakers and perhaps films on preparedness and survival concerns.

Map of cautionary zones along the Hollywood earthquake fault in West Hollywood

  1. I can’t recall the street name but it runs east/west north of Sunset Bl. near Gower. During the last earthquake wood frame homes on one side of the street all collapsed while those on the other side of the street showed little damage.

    For those who hate the MTA and wish Division 7 on Santa Monica Bl. was closed should think again. In case of an earthquake or other city emergency the MTA is part of the emergency response. Be it an earthquake, large apartment fire, a barricaded suspect, the MTA is often called in to evacuate people to a safe location. As a former RTD/MTA Supervisor I worked all three types of incidents more times than I can remember. About a year ago MTA buses were used to evacuate senior residents from their apartment building due to flooding. There is no longer an Operating Division in Venice so the nearest Operating Division is east of downtown Los Angeles. Imagine the travel time during an emergency for a bus to travel to West Hollywood.

  2. I think that WeHo and the City of LA have acted wisely in concentrating extreme density along the earthquake line on Sunset between La Cienega and Crescent Heights. We should crowd as many people as possible into these mega projects and after the Big One, we can simply pave over the rubble and pretend nothing happened. Remember LA’s motto, “the closer to the fault line, the taller the building.”

  3. One of the best ways to avoid having to dig victims out of collapsed structures along the Hollywood Fault is to not build along the Hollywood Fault. Advanced planning for disaster should start with the next update to the community plans in Hollywood and West Hollywood that designate what structures can be built where. The City of Signal Hill designated the area above the Newport-Inglewood Fault that runs through the center of its city as a green belt no-build zone. Los Angles and West Hollywood should do the right thing by their citizens and do the same. Yes, developers will bitch and moan but lives are more important than profit at the expense of lives.

    1. That’s a wonderful totally unrealistic comment about preparing for potential future earthquakes. I’m 50 and lived in la my whole life. Despite the rest of the country believing the potential for massive deaths from earthquakes is about as realistic of our society (and news outlets) treat SHARK ATTACKS.

      Traditional one & 2 story wood frame homes are remarkably good and bending and not killing people in droves. Steel Frame High-rises totally safe, everyone living N of Sunset in the hills, actually have extra protection from the billions of tons of rock creating the SM mtn range. ALL SITUATIONS I PERSONALLY EXPERIENCED MAJOR EARTHQUAKES IN LA.

  4. Thank you Carl for this important reminder. Beautifully written, as always and filled with valuable information. I think that we might all heed Josh Kurpies advice and contact our Public Safety Department and/or attend a Public Safety Commission meeting with our questions, concerns, etc.

  5. thank you , Carl…….I’m on the way to the supermarket for water…
    Great article…it certainly woke me up…..

  6. 1. A documentary ZERO DAY explains both how the new government computer viruses work, are able to cross into all air gapped computers and acts indepently with no way to stop or remove. “STUX_NET” is the nickname of this scary new breed of viral attacks on, entire power grids. THIS IS A GOOD REASON TO STOCK UP WITH MORE THAN OTHERWISE
    2. I think weho should plan and have ready hospital gurneys in case emergency care is needed and roads are blocked. plan to have people & equip to push a emergency care fatality to CEDARS-SINAI.
    3. PETS seem to be unprepared to deal with in Houston.

  7. A bit discouraging to see so few comments here. It would seem that the residents would benefit from a citywide fast track program implemented for comprehensive earthquake preparedness. This is not something that should be measured out at Public Safety Commission meetings. Have not seen any real evidence of any such measures since 1994 Northridge. Left to their own personal devices folks tend to be extremely passive. In the event of an emergency the burden falls on the prepared to also assist the slackers. Everyone must do their share. A program in place, periodically revisited should be the first order of the city.

  8. 1. I’m 50 and life long LA Resident. I have drilled into me “in an earthquake, stand in a door frame. THEY NIXED THAT AS WHAT TO DO. saying any door on hinges in a door frame, can cause more injury than diving under a strong table. My brain can’t compute the first rule.
    2 Coinkidi: just saw Amazon has a FIRST AID KIT with 299 pieces for $13. https://www.dealnews.com/lw/email_landing.html?t=alrt&c=878344&s=1504281817&u=268219&r=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.dealnews.com%2Flw%2Fclick.html%3F20%2C2%2C2075707%2Ciref%3Dalert-878344
    it will sell out in minutes.

  9. @David Reid, your questions would be best answered by the City of West Hollywood’s Director of Public Safety Kristin Cook at 323-848-6400 or kcook@weho.org or by attending one of the city’s monthly Public Safety Commission meetings that take place on the 2nd Monday of each month at 6:30pm in the 1st Floor Conference Room at City Hall.

  10. Having lived through the Northridge quake and too many smaller ones to count, I would rather experience another Northridge than the terrible tragedy unfolding in Texas.

  11. Is there a safety officer for WeHo? Who is responsible to make certain the stock of supplies in the trailers in the north parking lot of Plummer Park are not out of date. Are supplies rotated in these baking metal boxes? Be a bummer to open them when needed and the contents were unsalvageable.

  12. Perhaps it’s time to commandeer our neighborhood watch groups and make sure every neighborhood has one. Keep the watch captains and others informed with periodic updates at Plummer Park, Mid City and Westside. It is at least a framework to work with.

    Old fadhioned fire drills in larger buildings are also a good idea. The fire dept might help sponsor these.

  13. Thanks for the timely reminder Carl. You make several good points. The lack of zoning and land use controls in Houston and its unwillingness to address the known risks, together with your point that it may take days for first responders to reach us, makes me wonder why the city council gave condo owners a pass on implementing earthquake retrofitting measures.

  14. Absolutely.. come together like brothers/sisters for the good of man kind..Texas sets a higher standard of learning..Real, Direct, Strength, etc. people working for one another regardless of our differences .. then the possibilities of a Caliexit.. which would be detrimental alone from the other 49 in a major earthquake disaster …

Comments are closed.