'It could happen tomorrow': Experts know disaster upon disaster looms for West Coast
It's the elevators that worry earthquake engineering expert Keith Porter the most.
Scientists say a massive quake could strike the San Francisco Bay Area at any moment. And when it does, the city can expect to be slammed with a force equal to hundreds of atomic bombs.
Porter said the shaking will quickly cut off power in many areas. That means unsuspecting people will be trapped between floors in elevators without backup power. At peak commute times, the number of those trapped could be in the thousands.
To escape, the survivors of the initial quake will need the help of firefighters with specialized training and tools.
But their rescuers won't come – at least not right away. Firefighters will be battling infernos that could outnumber the region's fire engines.
Running water will be in short supply. Cellphone service may not work at all. The aftershocks will keep coming.
And the electricity could remain off for weeks.
"That means people are dead in those elevators,” Porter said.
'Problems on the horizon'
The situation Porter described comes from his work on the HayWired Scenario, a detailed look at the cascading calamities that will occur when a major earthquake strikes the Bay Area's Hayward Fault, including the possibility of widespread power outages that will strand elevators.
The disaster remains theoretical for now. But the United States Geological Survey estimates a 51% chance that a quake as big as the one described in HayWired will occur in the region within three decades.
It's one of several West Coast disasters so likely that researchers have prepared painstakingly detailed scenarios in an attempt to ready themselves.
The experts who worked on the projects are highly confident the West Coast could at any moment face disasters with the destructive power to kill hundreds or thousands of people and forever change the lives of millions more. They also say there's more that can be done to keep individuals – and society – safer.
"We’re trying to have an earthquake without having one,” Anne Wein told USA TODAY. Wein is a USGS researcher who co-leads the HayWired earthquake scenario and has worked on several other similar projects.
Such disaster scenarios are massive undertakings that bring together experts from various fields who otherwise would have little reason to work together – seismologists, engineers, emergency responders and social scientists.
That's important because "it's difficult to make new relationships in a crisis," Wein said.
Similar projects aimed at simulating a future disaster have turned out to be hauntingly accurate.
The Hurricane Pam scenario foretold many of the devastating consequences of a major hurricane striking New Orleans well before Hurricane Katrina hit the city.
More recently, in 2017, the authors of “The SPARS Pandemic” called their disaster scenario “futuristic.” But now the project now reads like a prophecy of COVID-19. Johns Hopkins University even issued a statement saying the 89-page document was not intended as a prediction of COVID-19.
“The SPARS Pandemic” imagined a future where a deadly novel coronavirus spread around the world, often without symptoms, as disinformation and vaccine hesitancy constantly confounded experts’ efforts to keep people safe.
The “SPARS scenario, which is fiction, was meant to give public health communicators a leg up … Think through problems on the horizon,” author Monica Schoch-Spana told USA TODAY.
At the time that SPARS was written, a global pandemic was thought of in much the same way experts currently describe the HayWired earthquake: an imminent catastrophe that could arrive at any time.
'It could happen tomorrow'
Disaster scenario researchers each have their own way of describing how likely the apocalyptic futures they foresee are.
"The probability (of) this earthquake is 100%, if you give me enough time," seismologist Lucy Jones will often say.
Earthquakes occurring along major faults are a certainty, but scientists can't predict exactly when earthquakes will happen – the underground forces that create them are too random and chaotic. But researchers know a lot about what will happen once the earth begins to shake.
Earthquakes like HayWired are “worth planning for," Porter said. Because “it could happen tomorrow.”
“We don’t know when,” Porter said. But "it will happen."
Wein says we're “overdue for preparedness.” You might say we're also overdue for a major West Coast disaster.
The kind of earthquake described in HayWired historically occurs every 100-220 years. And it's been more than 153 years since the last one.
Farther south in California, it's difficult to pin down exactly how at risk Los Angeles is for The Big One – the infamous theoretical earthquake along the San Andreas fault that will devastate the city. But a massive magnitude 7.5 earthquake has about a 1 in 3 chance of striking the Los Angeles area in the next 30 years, the United States Geological Survey estimates.
A 2008 scenario said a magnitude 7.8 quake could cause nearly 2,000 deaths and more than $200 billion in economic losses. Big quakes in Los Angeles are particularly devastating because the soil holding up the city will turn into a "bowl of jelly," according to a post published by catastrophe modeling company Temblor.
Another scenario warns that a stretch of coast in Oregon and Washington state is capable of producing an earthquake much more powerful than the ones California is bracing for. Parts of coastline would suddenly drop 6 feet, shattering critical bridges, destroying undersea communication cables and producing a tsunami.
Thousands are expected to die, but local leaders are considering projects that could give coastal residents a better chance at survival.
It too "could happen at any time," the scenario says.
Earthquake scenarios often focus on major coastal cities, but West Coast residents farther inland also have yet another disaster to brace for.
"Megastorms are California's other Big One," the ARkStorm scenario says. It warns of a statewide flood that will cause more than a million evacuations and devastate California's agriculture.
Massive storms that dump rain on California for weeks on end historically happen every few hundred years. The last one hit around the time of the Civil War, when weeks of rain turned portions of the state "into an inland sea."
'Decades to rebuild'
Whether the next disaster to strike the West Coast is a flood, an earthquake or something else, scenario experts warn that the impacts will reverberate for years or longer.
"It takes decades to rebuild,” Wein said. “You have to think about a decade at least."
A major West Coast earthquake isn't just damaged buildings and cracked roads.
It's weeks or months without running water in areas with millions of people. It's mass migrations away from ruined communities. It's thousands of uninhabitable homes.
Depending on the scenario, thousands of people are expected to die. Hundreds of thousands more could be left without shelter. And those impacts will be a disproportionately felt.
'DYING ON THE STREETS':Homelessness crisis is top issue in Los Angeles mayoral race
California already has a housing and homelessness crisis, and Nnenia Campbell said the next disaster is set to magnify inequalities. Campbell is the deputy director of the William Averette Anderson Fund, which works to mitigate disasters for minority communities.
Campbell doesn't talk about "natural disasters" because there's nothing natural about the way a major earthquake will harm vulnerable communities more than wealthy ones.
Human decisions such as redlining have led to many of the inequities in our society, she said. But humans can make decisions that will help make the response to the next disaster more equitable.
Many of those choices need to be made by local leaders and emergency management planners. Investing in infrastructure programs that will make homes in minority communities less vulnerable to earthquakes. Understanding how important a library is to unhoused people. Making sure all schools are built to withstand a disaster. Keeping public spaces open, even during an emergency.
But individuals can make a difference as well, Campbell said. You can complete training that will prepare you to help your community in the event of an emergency. Or you can join a mutual aid network, a group where community members work together to help each other.
Community support is a common theme among disaster experts: One of the best ways to prepare is to know and care about your neighbors.
If everyone only looks out for themselves in the next disaster, “we are going to have social breakdown," Jones said.
What you can do
Experts acknowledge you'll want to make sure you and your family are safe before being able to help others. Fortunately, many disaster preparedness precautions are inexpensive and will help in a wide range of emergency situations.
Be prepared to have your access to electricity or water cut off for days or weeks.
For electricity, you'll at least want a flashlight and a way to charge your phone.
While cell service will be jammed immediately after a major earthquake, communications will likely slowly come back online faster than other services, Wein said. (And when trying to use your phone, text – don't call. In a disaster, text messages are more reliable and strain cell networks less.)
To power your phone, you can cheaply buy a combination weather radio, flashlight and hand-crank charger to keep your cell running even without power for days.
A cash reserve is good to have, too, Jones said. You'll want to be able to buy things, even if your credit card doesn't work for a time.
Preparing for earthquakes specifically is important along the West Coast, too, experts said. Simple things like securing bookshelves can save lives. Downloading an early warning app can give you precious moments to protect yourself in the event of a big quake. Buying earthquake insurance can protect homeowners. And taking part in a yearly drill can help remind you about other easy steps you can take to prepare.
There's even more you could do to ready yourself for a catastrophe, but many disaster experts are hesitant to rely on individuals' ability to prepare themselves.
Just as health experts have begged Americans to use masks and vaccines to help keep others safe during the pandemic, disaster scenario experts believe community members will need to look out for one another when the next disaster strikes.
Telling people to prepare as if “nobody is coming to help you” is a self-fulfilling prophesy, Jones said.
For now, policymakers hold the real power in how prepared society will be for the next disaster. And there are many problems to fix, according to Porter, including upgrading city plumbing, because many aging and brittle water pipes will shatter in a major earthquake, cutting off water to communities for weeks or months.
"Shake it, and it breaks,” Porter said.
Getting ready for the next big earthquake means mundane improvements like even stricter building codes, emergency water supply systems for firefighters and retrofitting elevators with emergency power.
The elevator change could prevent thousands of people from being trapped when the big San Francisco earthquake comes.
“A lot of that suffering can be avoided," Porter said.