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Even after huge earthquakes, much of Southern California still unprepared for The Big One

A sizable crowd had already gathered outside the Surplus Store early July 6 when Victor Hernandez arrived at the West Los Angeles shop to unlock the doors.

An orange banner strung between two white columns advertising earthquake and survival supplies in large block letters welcomed the nervous throngs as they filed in. Dozens packed into a single aisle in the spacious shop, grabbing boxes of prepackaged earthquake kits, bags of filtered water and freeze-dried meals with labels that boast of a lengthy shelf life.

“We were really sweating bullets,” Hernandez, a 26-year store employee, said. “By the end of the day, we were pretty much cleaned out.”

The same scenario played out at stores across Southern California all weekend following a magnitude 6.4 earthquake on the morning of July Fourth and a larger temblor — a magnitude 7.1 — that struck a day later near Ridgecrest, Calif., a Mojave Desert town about 125 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

Despite all the warnings that the Big One is coming, officials have long struggled to get Californians ready to survive a major quake. There are relatively easy things that can be done, such as packing emergency kits with food and supplies, to more complicated — and expensive — tasks, including earthquake insurance, retrofitting homes and strengthening structures against violent shaking.

“It seems to always catch us off guard, and it shouldn’t,” said Reshan Dennis, a 16-year employee at the Surplus Store. “It makes you wonder how many of us are really prepared. Probably not a lot.”

The reality that a similar-sized earthquake in Los Angeles, a far more densely populated area than Ridgecrest, would do significant damage resonated with some in the days after the twin quakes. But that fear — which can send people running to the store for bottled water and canned food — is fleeting for most people, said Richard John, a professor of psychology at USC.

“A year or two from now, when the kit needs to be replenished, are they going to have the same feeling? Probably not,” he said. “So the cycle continues. In general, people have built up a sort of sense of resilience that this is just not something they need to worry about.”

People shop for supplies

People shop for supplies at SOS Survival Products in Van Nuys on July 8.

(Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty Images)

California had been in a lengthy earthquake drought before the magnitude 6.4 quake. Light shaking was felt across Los Angeles, more than 125 miles from the epicenter, but the temblor didn’t cause significant damage, so few rushed out to bolster their emergency supplies.

Then the larger, 7.1 quake struck, reclassifying the earlier temblor as a foreshock.

The phenomenon — and the complacency — isn’t exclusive to California.

On March 9, 2011, a magnitude 7.3 earthquake struck off the east coast of Japan. Two days later, a historic magnitude 9.1 earthquake devastated the area. Some ignored protocol and failed to evacuate before a catastrophic tsunami struck.

“It’s paradoxical,” John said. “You’d think in a near-miss situation, someone would say, ‘Wow, the next one is going to be really bad.’ ”

Dave O’Brien, who manages the Orange Army Navy store, said the shop, nestled between an antiques store and a cafe in the heart of Old Towne Orange, was nearly empty July 5 after the holiday quake.

One day later, though, he found himself overwhelmed — and the store understaffed. A crush of people turned out and O’Brien said they couldn’t buy earthquake kits fast enough.

“Our sales totals were double what we normally do,” he said. “It’s finally good to see people getting prepared. Unfortunately, it’s not enough. They’re not really gathering the right amount that they’re going to need if the Big One ever hits in our lifetime.”

Customers gravitate to prepackaged kits that contain a few days worth of food, water and some essential first-aid supplies because they’re convenient. The kits are helpful in a smaller magnitude quake but won’t last long after a major shaker that could cause widespread damage and force people from their homes, O’Brien said.

He scrambled to restock the store as more people trickled in to get supplies last week. After a few days, the crowds had thinned considerably, and he expects most will be gone completely within a month.

“People have short memories — even about earthquakes,” he said.

Soldiers fill a water container

National Guard troops fill water bottles for residents in Trona, Calif. on July 9.

(James Quigg / Associated Press)

It’s not just emergency supplies that Californians are lacking. According to the Department of Insurance, only about 21% of homeowners in L.A. and Orange counties have coverage for quake damage. The figures drop considerably in the Inland Empire, with only 9% of Riverside homes covered and 8% in San Bernardino.

Before July Fourth, it had been almost five years since the state experienced an earthquake of magnitude 6 or stronger. Experts had said the period of calm was sure to end, and when it did, it would likely bring destruction.

Sometimes, a moderate quake — after a series of aftershocks — can lead to a period of seismic quiet, seismologists say. Other times, it can usher in a new era of temblors, sometimes with increasing intensity.

In the 75 years before the great 1906 earthquake that destroyed much of San Francisco, there were 14 quakes of magnitude 6 or greater in the Bay Area, scientist Ross Stein previously said in an interview.

Then came the earthquake storm of the 1980s and ‘90s. As tallied by seismologists, it began with the Whittier Narrows temblor in 1987 —a magnitude 5.9 — which killed eight, followed by a magnitude 4.9 quake in Pasadena in 1988. The Montebello quake hit in 1989, registering at magnitude 4.4, followed by a magnitude 5.2 temblor in Upland in 1990 and a magnitude 5.8 quake in Sierra Madre a year later, which killed a woman.

The swarm culminated with the devastating Northridge earthquake in 1994, which killed at least 57 people. That earthquake — a magnitude 6.7 — was weaker than the July 5 quake but was centered in a more populated area.

People who experienced the severe quakes of decades past in Southern California are more likely to be concerned after a more moderate temblor. On the other hand, someone who has lived through a bunch of small earthquakes that didn’t wreak havoc are less likely to worry about future episodes, John said.

Mary Jeffers, 85, who has lived in Ridgecrest since the 1960s, admits she falls into the latter category. The wave of aftershocks that followed last week’s quakes didn’t scare her in the slightest.

Earthquakes come with the territory, she said. She had her house built with quakes in mind, so it’s sturdy, and suffered only minimal damage in the latest shakers. But she’s never had an emergency preparedness kit and because most of the quakes in the area have been small, she said she likely won’t change anything about the way she lives.

“I guess I don’t worry a lot,” she said. “Maybe famous last words. Maybe I’m tempting fate.”

Times staff Writers Rong-Gong Lin II and Alejandra Reyes-Velarde contributed to this report.

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Twitter: @Hannahnfry

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