Scientists detail impact of 'Big One' quake in California

ByABC News
May 23, 2008, 4:54 AM

LOS ANGELES -- The "Big One," as earthquake scientists imagine it in a detailed, first-of-its-kind script, unzips California's mighty San Andreas Fault north of the Mexican border. In less than two minutes, Los Angeles and its sprawling suburbs are shaking like a bowl of jelly.

The jolt from the 7.8-magnitude temblor lasts for three minutes 15 times longer than the disastrous 1994 Northridge quake.

Water and sewer pipes crack. Power fails. Part of major highways break. Some high-rise steel frame buildings and older concrete and brick structures collapse.

Hospitals are swamped with 50,000 injured as all of Southern California reels from a blow on par with the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina: $200 billion in damage to the economy, and 1,800 dead.

Only about 700 of those people are victims of building collapses. Many others are lost to the 1,600 fires burning across the region too many for firefighters to tackle at once.

A team of about 300 scientists, governments, first responders and industries worked for more than a year to create a realistic crisis scenario that can be used for preparedness, including a statewide drill planned later this year. Published by the U.S. Geological Survey and California Geological Survey, it is to be released Thursday in Washington, D.C.

Researchers caution that it is not a prediction, but the possibility of a major California quake in the next few decades is very real.

Last month, the USGS reported that the Golden State has a 46% chance of a 7.5 or larger quake in the next 30 years, and that such a quake probably would hit Southern California. The Northridge quake, which killed 72 people and caused $25 billion in damage, was much smaller at magnitude 6.7.

"We cannot keep on planning for Northridge," said USGS seismologist Lucy Jones. "The science tells that it's not the worst we're going to face."

USGS geophysicist Kenneth Hudnut said scientists wanted to create a plausible narrative and avoided science fiction like the 2004 TV miniseries 10.5 about an Armageddon quake on the West Coast.