LA Wants You To Know: When The Big One Hits, 'We're Not Coming' To Save You (At Least Not Right Away)

People shop for supplies, including food and water, at SOS Survival Products in Van Nuys on July 8, 2019, a few days after Southern California was hit by its two biggest earthquakes in twenty years. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

The two huge Ridgecrest earthquakes that rocked Southern California earlier this month shook a lot of people out of their earthquake apathy.

For the city of Los Angeles, the quakes presented an opportunity to promote greater readiness through a program that brings emergency management officials into people's living rooms.

The city launched its Ready Your L.A. Neighborhood program last year to teach Angelenos a simple truth: When the big one hits, the government probably isn't going to come save you.

"We don't have enough police officers and firemen" to help everyone affected by a huge quake, said Crisanta Gonzalez of the city's Emergency Management Department. "We're not coming."

As severe weather has become more common, this "you're on your own" approach to disaster preparation has become the industry standard. Today, cities across the country are embracing the idea that the best first responders in any natural disaster are your neighbors, Gonzalez said.

Ready Your L.A. Neighborhood workshops teach people what they need to have on hand when an earthquake hits and provides them with a checklist of things that need to get done in the first hour after disaster strikes.

Following the Ridgecrest quakes, the city started promoting the program more intensely. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said in the weeks following the Ridgecrest quakes the city had double the number of requests for workshops that it had in the program's entire first year of operation.

"ANGELENOS ARE BUSY"

Theresa Travis was one of those people. The native New Yorker had always worried about earthquakes during her 15 years living in Southern California, but feeling her house shake as the Ridgecrest quakes' waves rolled through Southern California made the threat of the big one much more pressing.

"As my career, I plan events," Travis said. "I have to be able to figure out if there's a disaster that's going to strike."

Travis saw an ad about the city's workshops while scrolling through a neighborhood social media app a few weeks after the earthquakes. The program piqued her interest and she emailed the city for more information.

Within two days, Crisanta Gonzalez and two of her colleagues were holding a workshop in the living room of Travis' home on a quiet Studio City cul-de-sac nestled against the Hollywood Hills.

Despite the increased interest in earthquake preparedness since Ridgecrest, Gonzalez said many people are reluctant to host a workshop when they find out that the city's presentation will last at least 90 minutes.

"Angelenos are busy. Angelenos have a lot going on," Gonzalez said. "That 90 minutes is a really hard sell."

That sales job becomes even harder when people find out that the workshops need to be hosted at private homes, Gonzalez said.

DEMAND IS GROWING

First responders tend to an exercise victim, playing the role of an earthquake casualty, during the Great California Shakeout earthquake drill at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles on October 19, 2017. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

"[We] have responded to over 100 emails just since the Fourth of July," Gonzalez said. "Of those 100 emails, we've gotten maybe 20 workshops."

But demand is growing. The 100 emails Gonzalez fielded are just for her bureau, which covers the San Fernando Valley. The city's three other emergency management bureaus have also seen increased interest in their workshops.

Luckily for Gonzalez, Theresa Travis did not need too much convincing before agreeing to host the workshop. The professional event planner laid out an ample spread for her guests: pizza, wine, beer and a cheese board.

Travis' disaster prepping skills are also on point: She has emergency earthquake bags at the ready for herself, her husband and their two young children, and the trunk of her car is loaded with potable water and high-calorie protein bars.

"I just want to be prepared at all times," Travis said.

None of the other people who attended the presentation are nearly as prepared as she is. As Gonzalez went through the city's checklists and protocols, she started firing off questions:

Who knows first aid? Who will volunteer to be part of the search party? Does anyone own a chainsaw? What about a generator? It was a lot of information to process, and some of the neighbors got flustered.

"I'm already overwhelmed by what you told me," said Allan Rich. "I'm never going to be able to do all this stuff."

Gonzalez tried to calm him down by telling him he isn't alone. Theresa Travis' assiduous disaster prep does not represent the norm, Gonzalez said. She also reiterated that the point of the workshops is to bring neighbors together so they can start thinking about earthquake preparedness as a team.

"It's absolutely a team effort," Gonzalez said. "You're never on your own."


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A local inspects a fissure in the earth after a 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck the area on July 4, 2019 near Ridgecrest, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

"AM I READY? NO."

These neighbors are already ahead of the curve because they have started their planning conversations, she said.

But even in this affluent, socially conscious neighborhood, attendance was low. Travis sent invitations to 20 of the houses on her street, but only five households came.

Some of her neighbors wanted to come but already had plans that night. Others simply weren't interested.

As hard as it is to get people to turn out in Studio City, outreach is even more challenging in poor neighborhoods, Gonzalez said. So her agency is holding lots of workshops in low-income housing developments.

"We want to get to the people that think that it's not within the possibility of saving $100 for a backpack," she said.

After two hours, Gonzalez wrapped up her presentation. Some of the neighbors had already left and others were getting restless. She closed her laptop and disconnected it from the living room television without finishing the video she had been playing throughout the presentation.

The neighbors thanked Travis for having them over and slowly saw themselves out. Elaine Cohen lives up the street and was visibly shaken by the amount of information she received.

Cohen grew up on this street in the 1960s. She moved away and then came back; she was here for the Sylmar and Northridge earthquakes.

"Am I prepared?" she said. "No. Do I have my stuff ready? No. And I'm someone who should know."

She, like so many Angelenos, has a lot of work to do.

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