What if the Mexicali earthquake had taken place 200 miles to the north? What if it had struck on the Newport-Inglewood Fault as in 1933, the second deadliest quake in state history? Or what if it had taken place on the Hayward Fault, right next to UC Berkeley? Would California have been prepared to handle the devastation?
For 40 years California has been running an intensive program of earthquake readiness. But the state budget crisis is cutting into the ability of local governments and rapid responders to be properly prepared for a quake. And as the New York Times examines, the private sector seems better prepared than the cash-starved public sector:
The budget challenges faced by firefighters and other first responders have probably affected preparedness, fire officials say…
“We know that there’s going to be an earthquake, and we know it’s going to be a major natural disaster,” said Lou Paulson, president of the California Professional Firefighters and a captain in the Contra Costa County fire protection district. “And I don’t want to be one of the people who stands in front of the state of California and says, ‘We told you so.'”…
Mr. Paulson said an equivalent quake in Los Angeles could have sparked about 1,500 fires, each of which requiring 20 or more fire personnel to control. And while fire teams in California are used to helping each other, particularly during fierce wildfire seasons like 2008, cutbacks and furloughs have some departments rethinking voluntary mutual aid agreements. “People are not going to saddle up as much as they used to,” he said.
If this sounds familiar to you, it should. Back in 2005, Orange County Republicans fought a proposal to direct more money to the Orange County Fire Authority, claiming that the money wasn’t needed and that it would have only benefited greedy public sector unions. Sure enough, when the Santiago Fire struck in the fall of 2007, the OCFA was shorthanded and unable to adequately respond, missing a key opportunity to stop the fire from spreading and nearly burning down my old neighborhood.
Of course, when I called them out on this, the Register responded by devoting their editorial page to attacking me for merely pointing out the truth. Ironically, the editorial also praised privatized fire services, making protection from firestorms conditional on one’s ability to pay.
What we are beginning to see is a similar situation with earthquake preparedness. Smug Southern Californians who mocked the largely black population of New Orleans for their suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina don’t realize that a major earthquake could very easily produce similar results for themselves. A major quake could knock out power, water, and gas services to the region (or to the Bay Area if a quake struck there) and although Caltrans embarked on a statewide program of seismic retrofits for freeways, paid for by a tax increase, many local governments still have roads and bridges that aren’t reinforced and could become impassable after a big quake, making relief supplies more difficult to deliver.
Even if most Californians had their recommended 3-day supply of food and water, it might well take longer than that for relief supplies to reach everyone, especially if there is widespread devastation. As in New Orleans, many Californians will expect their state and federal governments to help out – but will find instead that Republican budget cuts have left the emergency response system frayed and unable to provide immediate assistance.
Someday soon, within most of our lifetimes, the long-expected “Big One” finally will hit either the Bay Area or Southern California. Let’s hope that when it does happen, we’ve abandoned this misguided and in many ways unpopular anti-government, anti-tax budgeting that leaves so many vulnerable to disaster and catastrophe.