Cars lie smashed by the collapsed Interstate 5 connector a few hours after the Northridge earthquake on Jan. 17, 1994, in California.
Morning recess at St. Augustine Catholic School in Culver City, Calif., is like recess in many other schools. Children run and play in the afternoon sun. But nearby, away from the basketball hoops and the games of tag, the staff is preparing.
Next to the playground sits a cargo container full of supplies: water, duct tape, an axe, a shovel and a generator along with gasoline. All of these supplies are here just in case the freeways are cut off or the power goes out — in case there is a major, destructive earthquake.
In Southern California and communities from St. Louis to Seattle, millions of Americans live in areas at risk of getting hit by an earthquake. But experts say many have not taken the simple steps to protect themselves.
Prepping For Disaster
"This is an earthquake drill," says St. Augustine principal Beate Nguyen over the school's loudspeaker. "Right now: Drop, cover and hold on."
The students tuck their arms and legs in and take cover under their desks. They're part of the "Great Shakeout," an earthquake drill with almost 20 million participants around the country.
The children then evacuate outside. On a calm, beautiful day, however, the danger can feel a little abstract. But Nguyen says the drills are absolutely necessary.
"If everyone is prepared, then hopefully we are in a position to at least minimize the impact," she says.
Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate says that when an earthquake hits, FEMA will respond, but individuals need to be ready. He says 911 and other emergency services won't always be able to respond during large-scale, complex events like an earthquake.
"The better prepared people are to take care of themselves, the more we can focus on the heavy-impact areas and those without resources," Fugate tells NPR's Arun Rath.
Fugate says Superstorm Sandy, which devastated parts of the East Coast, showed that many people aren't as prepared as they think they are when disaster strikes.
And people in areas around the country with significant fault lines certainly need to prepare — because it's not a question of if an earthquake might strike, but when.
Predicting The Unpredictable
Trying to decipher when an earthquake will strike is rather difficult. In fact, Lucy Jones, the senior science adviser for risk reduction at the U.S. Geological Survey, says scientists are close to proving one thing: that we might as well give up on predicting earthquakes.
"You don't want me to predict every earthquake — what you want me to do is predict the one out of 50,000 that's large enough to do damage," Jones tells Rath. "So you're wanting a prediction of the magnitude as well as the time, and that's where the problem lies."
Jones says the trouble is that both large and small earthquakes begin in the same way, with a slip along a fault line. Small quakes simply get stopped by something; a large quake is one that has pushed past an obstruction and continues down the fault.
"As far was we can tell, every earthquake has some chance of pushing on down the fault, but only a small number of them do," she says.
That said, Jones says the USGS can pinpoint where a lot of the major quakes are likely to take place. They publish the information in the national seismic hazard maps, which give an idea of where the major fault lines are in the U.S. The USGS can also tell people what will happen when the earthquake does occur.
"We have a pretty good handle on if the earthquake happened tomorrow, what are going to be the half a dozen critical issues," she says.
They know that in part from experience.
Destruction In Northridge
Just after 4 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1994, a magnitude 6.7 earthquake struck Northridge, a neighborhood in northern Los Angeles. Reports said the quake lasted at most 30 seconds, but it was enough to snap water mains and gas lines, triggering fires that destroyed entire neighborhoods.
More than 50 people died in the earthquake and its aftermath, and thousands were injured. It was the most destructive earthquake in the U.S. in the past century.
Jones, the seismologist, says we learned a lot from that earthquake, but society has also changed since then. She says the disruption of modern telecommunications is the biggest unknown if a similar quake were to strike again.
"We don't have any regulations for the seismic securing of cellphone towers," she says. "We don't really know how many of the [towers] will still be up after the quake."
Another concern, Jones says, is the change in the way grocery stores operate. At the time of the Northridge quake, she says there were substantial stockpiles of food in local warehouses. With contemporary technology, food and grocery items are often brought in the day they are needed to stock shelves.
"I find a certain level of concern at what new vulnerabilities have we built into the system with all of these new efficiencies that have come with the development of the Internet economy," she says.
A Nation At Risk
One issue that has come up again and again is construction, and modern buildings must be made to withstand severe shaking. But no building code is retroactive, so there are a lot of buildings in earthquake-prone cities that aren't up to modern code, and might collapse.
In Los Angeles, one of the biggest problems is buildings made of concrete. Los Angeles Times reporter Ron Lin and his colleagues have been looking into the number of buildings at risk.
The L.A. Times researched major concrete structures around the city, pulling records and talking to the owners of dozens of properties. They found, among other things, that many of the concrete buildings lacked steel reinforcement bars that might keep them from collapsing in an earthquake.
"Many of these concrete buildings that are out there haven't been looked at by seismic engineers and haven't been retrofitted," Lin says. "The collapse of just one of these buildings could kill more people than in any of the catastrophes California has seen since the 1906 [San Francisco] earthquake."
Lin says the city's attempts to figure out where these buildings were often died because of resistance from property owners.
This is a problem in Southern California, where quakes are a big part of people's lives. But there's also significant risk up and down the West Coast, as well as the Midwest and other regions.
Jones says it's true that earthquakes are less frequent outside major hot spots, but those communities are much less prepared for them because of that. She says the 5.8-magnitude earthquake in Virginia in 2011 was felt by more people than any American earthquake.
"A relatively small earthquake that would have caused very little problem in California causes substantial damage in these less-prepared regions," she says.
But Jones says it's important to put some of this risk in perspective. She says she's constantly getting messages from people who are scared, and the lack of knowledge and predictability often makes earthquakes so frightening.
"We tend to be more afraid of earthquakes than is really justified by the risk they pose to us compared to other risks," she says. "Flooding is just as dangerous as earthquakes, but you don't find people scared of the rain. We're scared of things we don't see. We're scared of things that we don't know when they're coming, and we're scared of things we think science doesn't understand."
A little bit of good news is that the science is getting better. A project is underway in California to provide an early warning system for earthquakes. It might give people a few moments, maybe even a minute to prepare before an earthquake hits.
That may not sound like much, but it's enough time to get under a table, to turn off dangerous machinery or for a surgeon to stop cutting. Because when an earthquake does strike, every second will count.