LOS ANGELES, Jan. 22 (UPI) -- After months of intense security high alerts, National Guard call-ups and long lines at airport X-ray machines, California was reminded again not to forget that Mother Nature can, without warning, launch her own deadly surprise attack.
State officials and seismic scientists used Jan. 17, the eighth anniversary of the deadly Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles, to remind Californians that there is a lot more explosive energy building up in the Earth's cracked crust than any terrorist could ever hope to muster.
"We've been lucky these past few years that California's earthquake faults have been quiet," noted Dallas Jones, head of the state Office of Emergency Services. "But we must remember that the next big one could come today, tomorrow or next week. Being prepared is the key to survival."
The Northridge quake, which measured 6.7 on the Richter scale, caused 57 deaths and around 11,000 injuries; plus it damaged 97,000 homes to the tune of $20 billion. Eight years later, the state estimates that only a quarter of California's homes carry the extremely high-priced earthquake insurance.
And despite the advances of seismology, the capability to predict a future big earthquake is about on par with the CIA's ability to keep tabs on Mullah Mohammad Omar.
The next major temblor that rumbles through California, Alaska or the Pacific Northwest will likely not cause the kind of death toll that resulted from the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, but neither will it be merely a shake in the night.
John Hall, a civil engineering professor at California Institute of Technology, told United Press International that while building codes and construction methods in California have made great strides toward keeping structures standing, there are enough buildings that pre-date code improvements -- or don't meet them due to shoddy, sub-par construction -- to virtually guarantee another huge monetary loss and put a lot of lives at risk.
"There are hundreds of those buildings out there and a number of them will collapse with a serious loss of life," warned Hall.
Engineers have cast a worried eye on the materials and techniques used to put homes and office buildings together. Brittle welds, inadequately reinforced concrete and slap-dash stucco jobs virtually guarantee, they say, that the next large earthquake will do just as much damage as the Northridge shaker and the 7.0 Loma Prieta quake in 1989 that rocked the Bay area -- and it is not too much of a stretch to conjure up visions of the 7.7 earthquake and fire that virtually destroyed San Francisco in 1906.
"We have pretty much lucked out with this in the recent past," Hall said in discussing the danger of broken gas mains, sparking power lines and shattered wood-frame structures combining into a major inferno. "Had the wind been blowing (in the Northridge area) like it usually does and had there been a few more ignitions, the fire department might have had to let some of those fires burn."
The seismic provisions of California building codes have generally been strengthened after each major shaker, starting in the 1930s when a relatively modest 6.4 quake in Long Beach caused un-reinforced brick walls to crumble, killing 130 people.
Making necessary structural changes to existing buildings, however, is often too expensive for local governments to make them mandatory. This makes older brick buildings more vulnerable to serious damage such as that seen in downtown Seattle's historic Pioneer Square following last spring's 6.8 quake, where the structural vulnerability of the older buildings became painfully obvious as large chunks of masonry and brick were shed from the outside walls.
Hall warned that there probably aren't enough building inspectors in any one city to guarantee that newer structures are even built to code. In addition, the function of building codes is to keep a building upright and protect lives and not necessarily to prevent property damage, so homeowners and renters alike need to take steps to make sure their possessions are battened down.
Jones advised, "The ounce of prevention they take now could save them considerable physical, psychological and financial pain when the next one hits."
On top of it all, there is still not much that even cutting-edge technology can do to give the public a heads-up as to when a major quake might strike.
California is dotted with sensors that can detect the first vibrations of an earthquake. However, they don't yet have the capability of knowing whether the developing tremor is a threat or merely one of the hundreds of "microquakes" that are recorded almost daily on seismographs, but otherwise pass without notice.
"Predicting an individual event requires knowing the magnitude," said Lucy Jones, the head of the U.S. Geological Survey's office in Pasadena. "We can't yet see what is different between the start of a magnitude 3 and the start of a magnitude 6 earthquake."
While the ability to accurately predict major earthquakes seems to be a long way off, scientists have made some technological improvements in the way quakes are measured. New computer programs are able to quickly estimate where the worst shaking has occurred, which will help emergency services dispatchers send out crews to areas where they are needed the most.
Caltech and their USGS colleagues recently alerted the Office of Emergency Services of a "swarm" of small quakes recorded in the Southern California deserts. But it is up to Gov. Gray Davis to decide whether to announce to the public that there is possibly an increased chance of a larger temblor on the horizon.
At the end of the day, there was no warning issued, and despite the nation's focus on Sept. 11 and its dangerous aftermath, Californians are always hypervigilant and don't really need to be reminded that the threat of an earthquake is always lurking just under their feet.