When the buzzer went off, schoolchildren all over Southern California ducked under their desks, as they did for the nuclear bomb drills of the 1950s. Firefighters practiced separating the living from the dead, searched collapsed buildings and stormed through clouds of fake smoke, all to prepare for the big threat posed to California by earthquakes.
Called "The Great Shakeout," the nation's largest mock earthquake in history took place Thursday at 10 a.m. PST, to prepare for a threat of significant magnitude, the "Big One" that scientists project is long overdue.
"I was kind of scared at the beginning, but it turned out kind of cool," one little girl said.
The exercise revolves around a hypothetical magnitude-7.8 earthquake that unzips the southern San Andreas Fault, a major fault system running through California's coastal region. A group of 300 leading scientists, who created the scenario, say that it's a realistic simulation of what could happen if an earthquake of this scale were to hit the region.
The Great Earthquakes of 1857, 1872 and 1906 all fell along the San Andreas Fault line, but the fault hasn't moved in 300 years, leaving California around 150 years overdue for disaster. Experts warn that a quake today could result in 1,800 deaths, 53,000 injuries and more than $200 billion in damages. A real quake would shut down Los Angeles, and cut off water, power and telephone services for as many as 10 million people.
With 22 million resident in southern California, officials consider Thursday's event a necessary rehearsal to prevent an earthquake from morphing into a public disaster. The exercise gave citizens and California's emergency management the opportunity to practice their preparedness. Approximately 5 million Southern Californians took cover.
Originally, the scenario was devised as a full-scale exercise for 5,000 local and state emergency teams, called the Golden Guardian 2008; but, it was expanded to incorporate the public.
"Were trying to get people to understand it's inevitable, we can embrace it, we can live through it and we can figure ways of making it less damaging," said Dr. Lucy Jones, chief scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Families, business, schools, neighborhood groups and individuals have been registering over the past few months and have been encouraged to draft a disaster plan, gather emergency supplies and treat the event as one would a true earthquake. They've even put together a "Beat the Quake" game, where people can test their "earthquake skills" and knowledge. Experts estimate that the drill scenario cost $2 million to organize and execute.
Experts hope to both mentally and physically prepare residents for a quake of this magnitude. While many people understand the threat an earthquake poses to their safety, they don't know the proper "drop, cover and hold on" technique, which is safer than doorways.
Many seemed to get the message.
"It's good to practice so you can know what to do," said a girl who participated with her classmates, "so you can learn how to stay calm and not freak out."
In April, the United States Geological Survey reported that California faces a 46 percent chance of being hit by a magnitude-7.5 quake or larger within the next 30 years, likely in Southern California.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.