Scientists Predict $200B in Damage from Southern California Earthquake

May 22, 2008

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the California Geological Survey (CGS) have jointly published a report detailing a hypothetical scenario the impact a 7.8 magnitude earthquake — similar to the recent earthquake in China — would have in the Southern California region.

Scientists said an earthquake of that magnitude would cause loss of lives and massive damage to infrastructure, including critical transportation, power and water systems. They predicted the earthquake would kill 1,800 people, injure 50,000, cause $200 billion in damage, and have long-lasting social and economic consequences. Although imaginary, the Shakeout Scenario is based on USGS’ and CGS’ best predictions of what would actually occur during and after a major earthquake on the San Andreas Fault, the organizations said.

Among their predictions:
•The strongest shaking and greatest damage would occur near the stretch of the San Andreas Fault that extends through the fastest growing areas of Southern California, including the Coachella Valley, Inland Empire and Antelope Valley.

•At least 10 million people will be exposed to heavy shaking. California’s efforts at mitigation have concentrated on life safety and have been largely successful. Thus, in spite of the large numbers of people in highly shaken areas, deaths are estimated at only 1,800.

•Building types known to be vulnerable to damage and collapse, would sustain major damage. All un-reinforced masonry buildings within 15 miles of the San Andreas Fault would be completely destroyed. Those that are not retrofitted would kill many occupants. Many other older building types without retrofitting would contribute to more than $33 billion in damage to buildings.

•The fault would offset all lifelines crossing into Southern California at Cajon Pass (Interstate 15), San Gorgonio Pass (Interstate 10) and along Route 14, including pipelines, power lines, roads, railways, telecommunications and aqueducts.

•Strong shaking would occur in downtown Los Angeles for 55 seconds — nearly 8 times longer than in the Northridge Earthquake.

•The prolonged, strong shaking would heavily damage and sometimes collapse hundreds of old brick buildings, thousands of older commercial and industrial concrete buildings, many wood-frame buildings, and even a few, high-rise steel buildings. More than 600,000 buildings would suffer at least some damage that causes tens of thousands of injuries and hundreds of deaths, and leaves many thousands of people without homes or jobs.

•Fire would double the fatalities and economic losses. Around Southern California, there will be 1,600 fires started large enough to warrant a 911 call, and some fires would merge into conflagrations that burn hundreds of city blocks. Assuming no Santa Ana winds, the models still indicate a further $65 billion in direct losses and $22 billion in indirect losses from the fires.

•Nearly two-thirds of the hospital beds would be non-functional in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties. At the same time, 50,000 people will seek treatment at emergency rooms.

•Thanks to a $6 billion investment in seismic safety, the State highway system would fare well. However, although collapse would be avoided, some bridges would be non-functional so that much of the highway is not passable on the day of the event. The long duration of shaking will take a greater toll on bridges and overpasses under the jurisdiction of cities and counties where the retrofitting processes are not complete or have not begun.

•The largest long-term economic disruption would come from damage to the water distribution system. Damage to this system will be so extensive that some areas will have to replace the whole system, and some buildings will be without water for as long as 6 months. The direct and indirect business interruption costs attributed to the lack of water will be $50 billion.

The forecast is being used for what will be the largest earthquake preparedness drill in California history, scheduled for Nov. 13, 2008. Scientists said despite their predictions, most of the damage is predictable and much is preventable. They suggest individuals protect themselves and help their community by storing water, keeping a fire extinguisher and knowing how to use it, and securing building contents from flying around and reinforcing a building they own to the most current standards.

The November preparedness exercise, “Golden Guardian ’08,”; will test the ability of emergency responders to deal with the impact of a magnitude 7.8 earthquake on the San Andreas Fault in Southern California, and is being jointly organized by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Office of Emergency Services and the California Office of Homeland Security. The Golden Guardian exercise will occur during a week-long series of public events planned for the “Great Southern California ShakeOut.”; A June 4th kick-off event is planned for the “ShakeOut”; to help communities plan to respond to the risks highlighted in the scenario.

“The planned emergency drill is underpinned by the most comprehensive analysis ever of what a major Southern California earthquake would mean on the ground,” said Dr. Lucile Jones, chief scientist for U.S. Geological Survey’s Southern California Multi-Hazards Demonstration Project. “We know this science will help state and local agencies develop comprehensive emergency-response plans that will help us avoid the worst impacts of a major quake.”

The ShakeOut Scenario is the product of an interdisciplinary collaboration of more than 300 scientists, engineers, and other experts from several agencies, including the USGS, the California Geological Survey, Southern California Earthquake Center, California Office of Emergency Services and Seismic Safety Commission.

To create the Scenario, geologists determined the amount of potential motion on the part of the San Andreas Fault with the greatest risk of imminent rupture, a 200-mile long section from the Salton Sea in the Coachella Valley to just south of Gorman. From this, seismologists and computer scientists modeled the ground shaking. Engineers and building professionals used the models of ground shaking to estimate damage to the built environment. And from these damages, social scientists evaluated emergency response, casualties, and the impact on our economy and society.

The scientific report describing the ShakeOut Scenario, jointly published by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the California Geological Survey (CGS), was released May 22, 2008, during a Congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. The House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, led by Chairman Jim Costa, D-Calif., will hold an oversight hearing on USGS efforts to prepare for future earthquakes, at 10 a.m. EDT in Room 1324, Longworth House Office Building.

A copy of the report is available at A non-technical summary narrative of the Scenario is online at

Sources: USGS, CGS

Topics California Catastrophe Natural Disasters USA Earthquake

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