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Weather & Natural Disasters

Scenes of flooding, destruction from Harvey reminder of California quake disaster risk

Key Points
  • Scenes of flooding and destruction from Harvey are a reminder to Californians of the risk of a strong earthquake unleashing a great disaster in the state.
  • A huge quake in Southern California alone could impact 23 million people and kill thousands, according to the Los Angeles Times.
  • The long-awaited "big one" is a mega-earthquake much larger than the 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake of 1994, which killed at least 60 people.
Rescues in the flood zone, Port Arthur, Texas

Hurricane Harvey is seen as a wake-up call of sorts for an earthquake disaster scenario that could be possible in Southern California, according to the Los Angeles Times.

"Both natural disasters fundamentally alter daily life for months or years," the paper reported.

The long-awaited "big one" is an earthquake that could have a magnitude of 8.0 or more and be much larger than the 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake of 1994, which killed at least 60 people and injured more than 9,000 people.

There are various cost estimates of the 1994 Northridge earthquake but the Insurance Information Institute estimates there was $20 billion in total property damage and other estimates put the total economic damage at nearly $50 billion.

Total economic damage from a reoccurrence of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, though, could total $95 billion to $155 billion, according to a 2014 report presented at a quake symposium.

By comparison, AccuWeather on Thursday estimated Harvey's cost at about $190 billion, which it noted is more than the combined economic impact of Katrina and Sandy. Harvey has resulted in massive flooding and led more than 30,000 people to flee to Texas shelters. Also, storm surges and winds destroyed large portions of Rockport, where the hurricane struck Friday.

The Times quoted from a 2008 federal and state government study that estimated a 7.8 temblor alone would be "so powerful that it causes widespread damage and consequently affects lives and livelihoods of all Southern Californians."

An apartment building on fire as a result of the Northridge earthquake in 1994.
Visions of America | UIG | Getty Images

A huge quake in Southern California could impact 23 million people, killing thousands and injuring nearly 50,000 others. It could displace up to 1 million people from their homes and threaten the majority of the water supply for the Greater Los Angeles area since it relies on aqueducts that cross the feared San Andreas Fault, which can produce some of the largest quakes.

Seismologist Lucy Jones told the paper a big quake along the San Andreas Fault could "cause damage in every city" in Southern California, from the inland desert region and major LA basin on up nearly 200 miles away to the central coast communities such as San Luis Obispo.

When the big quake comes, there could be more than a thousand fires and it would inundate firefighters and "be hampered by traffic gridlock and a lack of water from broken pipes. The death toll could mount as hundreds of people trapped in collapsed buildings are unable to be rescued before flames burn through."

Only around 1 in 10 California homeowners has earthquake insurance today, according to the California Earthquake Authority, the largest provider of residential earthquake insurance in the state. With Hurricane Harvey, fewer than 2 in 10 homeowners with flood damage are estimated to have flood insurance, according to the Consumer Federation of America.

But the Times said Harvey might boost efforts by scientists and others to warn the public about the risks of a "catastrophic earthquake" striking Southern California. However, the earthquake risks are not just in Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest city, but found in Northern California in places such as San Francisco, which experienced a 1906 earthquake estimated at a magnitude 7.8 that killed more than 3,000 people and destroyed a majority of the city.

Read the full article in the Los Angeles Times.