The Big One

Nicole Anisgard Parra/Illustrations director


Books were tossed from library shelves. Asbestos rained from ceilings.

Windows broke and tiles and bricks came loose across campus. Buildings flooded and chemicals spilled.

Students living in apartments gathered in the streets to wait out the power outage together. Meanwhile, in the dorms, one resident was stuck in her room for two hours until other students broke open her damaged door.

The spires of Kerckhoff Hall rotated six inches and Royce Hall’s towers cracked.

Most UCLA students were asleep when the Northridge earthquake hit. It was 4:31 a.m of Jan. 17, 1994 when California’s latest major earthquake with a magnitude of 6.7 made itself felt in Westwood. The earthquake left UCLA rebuilding for years.

The Big One is expected to be much worse.

California has long been aware of the possibility of a Big One, a hypothetical earthquake stronger than anything the state has seen in over 100 years. In 2015, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that there was a 60% chance of an earthquake with magnitude 6.7 or larger hitting the Los Angeles area over the next 30 years and 31% chance of one with magnitude 7.5 or greater.

On the Richter scale, which is a logarithmic scale used to measure earthquakes, an increase in one whole unit of magnitude corresponds to a release of over 31 times more energy. Some estimate that, if the Big One turns out to be a magnitude 7.8, it will release over 44 times more energy than the Northridge earthquake did.

Los Angeles lies near the San Andreas Fault, the boundary between two tectonic plates – the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate – that are part of the Earth’s crust. These plates are always moving at the rate of about two inches per year relative to each other, but the fault itself does not move as easily. When it does finally give in to the stress of the plates' movement, it slips, causing an earthquake.

Jason Ballmann, the communications manager for the Southern California Earthquake Center, said it is known that a large earthquake happens every 100 to 200 years on that fault. However, the southern part of the San Andreas Fault has not produced a large earthquake in over 300 years.

In order to model what a magnitude 7.8 earthquake could mean for Southern California, the USGS published "The ShakeOut Scenario" in 2008. Ballmann said an earthquake that strong could lead to many different outcomes, and this scenario represents one of the worst possible – but not the absolute worst case – it could create. He said it aims to help reduce injury and economic loss by encouraging individuals, businesses, policymakers and communications experts to prepare for an earthquake.

A photograph of the helipad on top of the Ronald Reagan Medical Center.
The Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center is one of only two hospitals in the state with two helipads, which can be used to transport patients or supplies. This could be important in the case of the “Big One.” (Niveda Tennety/Daily Bruin)

According to the scenario, an earthquake of that magnitude could cause more than 1,800 deaths, 50,000 injuries and $200 billion in damages in Southern California. Ballmann said half of those expected fatalities would be from fires that break out from broken gas lines.

“Everyone needs to know that this is possible, needs to know that it’s not just about the shaking,” he said. “It’s about the fires that could break out, the bridges that could fail, the dams that could break, all these other long-term effects, not having water, not having electricity, not having internet, these things that we depend on and take for granted every day.”

The scenario also anticipates that phone systems will be down, emergency responders will be overwhelmed and many people arriving in hospitals will need to be treated for injuries from being crushed, for broken bones and for trauma.

David Jackson, a professor emeritus of Earth and space sciences at UCLA, said he does not like the term “Big One.” He said for seismologists, there can be multiple definitions for what makes an earthquake big, not just the magnitude. Other factors that influence an earthquake’s impact on a target are its proximity to the quake’s epicenter and the composition of the soil it is sitting on, he said.

Jackson said that he considers the Northridge earthquake, with just a magnitude of 6.7, to be a big earthquake. According to the Associated Press, it caused 72 deaths, about 9,000 injuries and over $25 billion in damage.

In the years since then, the study of earthquakes has evolved. Jackson said recordings are now more accurate for detecting smaller earthquakes, and GPS has improved for more accurate localization of earthquakes and measurements of ground movement.

“UCLA is in the red zone,” he said. “It’s a place where earthquakes can be expected based on statistical models.”

However, Ballmann said probabilities of earthquakes should not be seen in the same way as a weather forecast, as even just a small chance is important.

“If you had a 7% chance that tomorrow you’re going to break your leg, wouldn't you take a lot of precaution to try to avoid that from happening?” he said.

Ballmann said the City of Los Angeles has taken precautions in response to the scenario, such as storing water, working with cellphone carriers to plan for a possible loss of communication services and passing legislation to retrofit certain types of older buildings.

Peter Hendrickson, the associate vice chancellor for design and construction of UCLA Capital Programs, said in an email statement that UCLA is also committed to limiting the potential risks of earthquakes.

UCLA has been in the process of renovating its buildings to bring them to higher safety standards since 1972, Hendrickson said. Currently, the seismic renovations for 64 buildings have been completed, and Franz Hall and the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior are undergoing renovation, he said. The renovations have cost $2.3 billion over the past four decades.

If you had a 7% chance that tomorrow you’re going to break your leg, wouldn't you take a lot of precaution to try to avoid that from happening?

Hendrickson said engineers can now use virtual models to study how earthquakes could shake buildings based on knowledge of past earthquakes.

“These types of technologies have revolutionized the effectiveness of both the analysis and the mitigation techniques which were unavailable in the past,” he said.

UCLA was on track to finish its original seismic correction program this year, Hendrickson said, but will reevaluate its buildings based on a 2017 update to the University of California seismic policy and upgrade any newly identified targets by the end of 2030.

Renovating historic buildings on campus is not simply a matter of engineering, though. Royce Hall, Powell Library and Kerckhoff Hall were all damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, but preserving their appearances was key to the renovations that happened afterward.

Curt Ginther, a former project architect with UCLA Capital Programs who worked on the renovations, said the damage was astounding. He said damage to Powell Library’s plaster ceiling was the most shocking for him to see.

“It was exactly like an eggshell shattered,” he said. “That was pretty major.”

Ginther said most of the damage caused by the earthquake was to older buildings built in the 1920s and 1930s because seismic building codes were hardly written then. He said that, after the earthquake, the Federal Emergency Management Agency funded the restorations.

A photograph inside of Powell Library while its roof was being repaired due to damage from the 1994 earthquake.
Powell Library’s ceiling cracked during the Northridge earthquake and had to be replaced. (Courtesy of UCLA University Archives)

Kerckhoff Hall’s renovation made use of a novel technology: Giant cylindrical base isolators made of rubber and lead were inserted in the building foundations. In case of an earthquake, Ginther said they will stretch slowly to minimize the movement of the building above them, which weighs thousands of tons. He said it received a lot of attention around the state and served as an example for other buildings later renovated with the same technology.

“Kerckhoff was the most unbelievable,” he said. “I still can’t believe how we did this.”

The renovations also added a covered moat filled with air surrounding Kerckhoff Hall so that the building would have room to move in an earthquake without being damaged. For Royce Hall and Powell Library, Ginther said renovators were able to insert concrete and reinforcing bars into a gap between the inner and outer walls to strengthen the buildings, thus preserving their facades.

Maintaining the buildings’ iconic appearances was so important that their features were intently photographed, their paint colors were carefully matched and even expert artisans from Italy were hired, Ginther said. If another large earthquake were to hit UCLA and damage the buildings, he said he thinks the university would do whatever it takes to restore them.

“Look at Notre Dame. Royce and Powell are our Notre Dame,” he said. “We undertook it like this is going to be for another 100 years, but somebody way in the future will probably have another earthquake or a worse earthquake."

The integrity of buildings on campus is extremely important in the event of an earthquake, but inside those buildings, individuals and groups are still preparing.

An infographic depicting the types of building damage that could occur in the event of an earthquake.
(Graphic reporting by Matisse Senkfor/Daily Bruin, Graphic by Mavis Zeng/Assistant Graphics editor.)

The Hill, home to thousands of students, has emergency supplies stocked for its residents with blankets and at least 72 hours worth of food and water, said Lorraine Schneider, the training coordinator at the UCLA Office of Emergency Management. She said resident assistants and front desk staff have received some emergency training as part of their hiring process, but it heavily emphasizes fires and building evacuations and does not extensively cover earthquakes.

Schneider said she prepares individuals on campus to act in emergency situations like earthquakes by managing UCLA’s warden program. Every building at UCLA has a facility warden, floor wardens and area wardens, totaling over 1,000 on campus, she said. In this program, she provides wardens with specialized emergency training that includes how to evacuate a building if there is an earthquake and what to do afterward.

We undertook it like this is going to be for another 100 years, but somebody way in the future will probably have another earthquake or a worse earthquake.

UCLA’s laboratories also have particular concerns in the event of an earthquake. Scott Hseih, the laboratory safety division manager for UCLA's environmental health and safety department, said that the main issues would be chemical spills, which in the worst case could create a scenario involving hazardous material. To prevent this, laboratories take precautions in storing materials, such as making sure containers cannot fall over or using secondary containment to make it harder for incompatible chemicals to mix, which he said are standard measures, although other universities may follow them a little differently.

“Obviously in California, we look a little more than other universities outside that aren’t earthquake-prone,” he said.

He also said he encourages researchers to have emergency plans, which he thinks sometimes get overlooked but can be beneficial. He said continuity planning is important for researchers in going back to their work after disasters, so they have a plan for what to do if, for example, their laboratory space is unavailable or if their freezers are not working.

“These labs live or die on publishing,” he said. “Four months can be a big deal.”

Individual preparedness is also at the core of UCLA’s Community Emergency Response Team program. Schneider has been its program manager since 2016. She said the program trains nonprofessional community members for free on emergency preparedness and response, requiring no prior background. Since January 2017, she has trained over 350 students, faculty and staff.

CERT was first created by the Los Angeles Fire Department after seeing the aftermath of the devastating Mexico City earthquake of 1985, during which over 100 volunteers died trying to help rescue others. It later expanded to become a national program sponsored by the FEMA.

“It’s meant to make people self-sufficient in a disaster because we know first responders will be overwhelmed,” she said.

A photograph of CERT members simulating a search and rescue drill.
CERT members simulated a search and rescue operation on their last day of class to help them prepare in the case of an emergency such as the “Big One.” (Niveda Tennety/Daily Bruin)

She said those who are self-sufficient can take care of themselves and their loved ones, and after that they might be able to help the community.

Schneider said CERT covers a wide range of topics, from the basics of making an emergency kit or using a fire extinguisher to how to treat airway obstruction, bleeding and shock, which are the three main killers in disaster situations. She said they also teach how to safely do light search and rescue using the same methods as the fire department.

The training even includes disaster psychology, which she said addresses how to approach others who are panicked or experiencing trauma as well as the importance of the psychology of individuals acting as responders.

“Everyone in California knows an earthquake is coming, but it takes a little effort to do something about it, to get the tools,” she said.

She said she thinks emergencies like wildfires and shootings are at the forefront of people’s minds since they have more recently affected UCLA, even though earthquakes are more likely. She said this is a common trend in emergency management.

Emergency management at UCLA is a big job for a small team. Schneider said that the size of the team has doubled over the past few years, from two people to four, including her hiring. However, she said it does not have the office space to expand more.

A photograph of a CERT training drill.
CERT members performed triage on actors pretending to have sustained various injuries during the training exercise. (Niveda Tennety/Daily Bruin)

Schneider said the office of emergency management tries to communicate with and train as many people as possible, but it can be difficult because UCLA’s population is large, and some departments are better informed than others. She said the office now reaches out to new students at orientation and is working on creating an online training module for earthquake preparedness, but there is always more education that can be done.

“Knowledge is everywhere, and knowledge is free,” she said.

Knowledge of the past is also informing UCLA Health’s preparations for operating in an emergency. William Dunne, UCLA Heath’s administrative director for emergency preparedness, security and safety services, said that planning is about creating resilience in infrastructure that is heavily relied on.

With the Northridge earthquake, he said that UCLA’s medical centers had significant structural damage, as did other medical facilities in the Los Angeles area. The old UCLA Medical Center was damaged to the point that it required retrofitting, but instead the old building was renovated to turn it into research space.

Its replacement, the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, was completed in 2008 and the UCLA Health facilities in Santa Monica were renovated from 2007 to 2012, Dunne said. The Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center is built so that different parts of the building can move independently in an earthquake, and infrastructure inside is seismically braced, he said. Everything hung on walls inside the building has to be approved, even whiteboards.

A large earthquake could affect water and power supply, so the medical center has a 70,000 gallon water tank that can support the hospital for a few days, he said. Both hot and cold water are critical to the center's functioning, from ventilation and air conditioning to hand-washing and sterilizing surgical equipment.

A photograph of steam and hot water pipes at the Ronald Reagan Medical Center.
Steam and hot water are very important to the operating of the Ronald Reagan Medical Center. The hospital was recently renovated to make it better suited for emergencies. (Niveda Tennety/Daily Bruin)

Electricity is also important for medical equipment, electronic health records and maintaining the building’s internal environment, Dunne said, so the medical center has four generators that can provide power for 70% of the normal capacity of the entire medical center for several days.

He said another result of a large earthquake could be an increase in traumatic injuries that need to be treated, so UCLA-affiliated hospitals have protocols for how they can increase their capacity. For example, he said extra beds might be added to hospital rooms to take in more patients while using the same infrastructure, or people might be cared for in different locations outside the hospital, like parking lots or Pauley Pavilion, so only the most critical patients would be brought inside.

Another aspect of the hospitals’ resilience is how to maintain quality of care when staff do not have access to their usual medical tools, Dunne said. He said staff go through scenarios and practice exercises to prepare for functioning under special conditions so that they are not overly reliant on one tool.

Dunne said personal preparedness is also important for hospital staff because they will be better able to support the community in an emergency if they are resilient at home.

“Being a large academic medical center in LA County, we would be expected to be that source of lights being on even when every other one is out,” Dunne said. “We would be relied on to seek care for injuries no matter what else is happening."