Most of us in Bakersfield don't remember where we were at 4:31 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1994. But virtually everyone in Southern California remembers clearly. The Northridge earthquake on that date is forever emblazoned in their memories. Why is this important to us in Kern County? This 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake caused 57 deaths, 8,700 injuries and $20 billion in property damage.
Our own Kern County earthquake in 1952 had a higher magnitude of 7.5, but Kern's population was less dense then, so our 14 fatalities were few by comparison. Yet property damage was extensive. Some characterized it as an unplanned "urban renewal" in downtown Bakersfield. The difference in magnitude sounds like our event mathematically was only 12 percent more intense than Northridge, correct? Wrong. Magnitude increases exponentially. In more understandable terms, Northridge experienced the effect of 170,000 tons of TNT -- a major explosion by any standard. Our 1952 earthquake was the equivalent of 2.7 million tons of TNT -- 16 times the energy release of Northridge.
Yet neither of these was the "big one." The last "big one" was in 1857 -- the Fort Tejon earthquake. What made its 7.2 magnitude even worse was its duration, a dimension not always emphasized in the media. Northridge's shaking lasted 11 seconds. Our 1952 shaking lasted 18 seconds. Yet the 1857 event reportedly lasted 130 seconds -- seemingly an eternity"to those present. No one can predict an earthquake; however, historical evidence suggests that major events like Fort Tejon recur about every 150 years. We're overdue. We need to prepare. But for what? Here are some outcomes of the Northridge earthquake none of us would expect, yet they could happen here:
An outbreak of Valley Fever 10 times its normal rate; closure of hospitals whose inpatients had to be transferred elsewhere; many radio and TV stations off the air -- if only at the outset, when needed most; extensive water damage from automatic fire-suppression (sprinkler) systems in commercial buildings; schools and universities closed, with some classes relocated; and collapse of bridges that restricted evacuation pathways.
Expected outcomes beyond direct damage are:
Extended loss of power; scarcity of food and water; unavailability of fire and police assistance (except for most-serious needs); and shutdown of most businesses and government offices.
Data are available from the Internet and American Red Cross about how families or businesses can prepare. Of concern is the number of homeowners now without earthquake insurance. At the time of Northridge's event, 29 percent of Californians were reported to have earthquake insurance. Today, the California Department of Insurance reports that number is only 10.6 percent.
Although cars and trucks with physical damage coverage are insured if damaged by an earthquake, our homes are not. Most homeowners policies can be extended to include coverage through the California Earthquake Authority. A better option is a separate earthquake policy called a "DIC" (difference in conditions) policy. It usually has a lower deductible (10 percent instead of 15) and a reasonable, if not lower, premium. DICs typically include higher limits on personal property at 50 percent of the dwelling amount. CEA coverage offers only a flat $5,000. Neither premium is prohibitive. In Bakersfield, a typical DIC rate is about $1.30 per $1,000 of the dwelling limit. Ask your agent or broker for a proposal, then make a knowledge-based decision.
A business also needs a business continuity plan. It's one thing to survive the event. It can be an entirely different challenge to continue a business and its revenue stream in the months following the disaster itself. Hurricane Katrina's aftermath included shutdown of thousands of businesses -- permanently.
We should consult agents and brokers (as well as www.ready.gov) and then follow through with that counsel based on two fundamental risk management principles: Don't risk a lot for a little, and don't risk more than you can afford to lose. Even if the earthquake isn't in our immediate future, you'll enjoy the overall goal of risk management: a quiet night's sleep.
John Pryor of Bakersfield is a risk management consultant and author of the "Quality Risk Management Fieldbook."