Three lessons California can learn from Katrina


Could a disaster like Hurricane Katrina and a chaotic fiasco like what followed that massive Gulf Coast storm happen here in California?

Anyone who thinks the answer is no has been ignoring the many types of disasters we have already seen.

In the last century, this state felt large earthquakes - 1906, 1933, 1954, 1971, 1989, 1994, to name a few - a tsunami - in 1964, featuring 21-foot waves in Crescent City and 11-foot swells as far south as Santa Cruz - a volcanic eruption on Mount Lassen starting in 1915 and a constant series of killer brush fires.

There were huge floods, destructive riots and even the occasional disease epidemic. However, California still has not seen it all.

Through all its disasters, this state has never experienced the Big One, an earthquake measuring 8.5 or above on the Richter Scale. We also have never seen a multitude of disasters happen simultaneously, as also is possible.

A truly big quake would be about 10 to 15 times more damaging than California’s last major temblor, the Northridge earthquake of 1994, which did serious damage more than 20 miles from its epicenter.

Photos of the great Alaskan earthquake of 1964, the 8.6-level shock that also spawned California’s tsunami, show wreckage in Anchorage and Kodiak looking similar to what Katrina left in Louisiana and Mississippi.

A quake of that force striking modern San Francisco or Los Angeles could do exponentially more damage than the historic 1906 temblor that destroyed most of San Francisco. Why? Because there are exponentially more people to get hurt and because high-rise buildings did not exist 100 years ago.

Plus, there’s a good chance the building codes that supposedly protect Californians from the most serious quake damage would prove as flawed as the levees that once protected New Orleans.

Building codes prior to the Northridge quake were also supposed to assure that structures would not buckle. But they did. One dramatic example: The three-story staircase outside one parking garage on the California State University campus there was literally flipped upside down by the force of a quake that measured a mere 6.9. Imagine something 15 times as forceful.

Similarly, the 7.1 Loma Prieta quake of 1989 caused traumatic damage throughout San Francisco’s Marina District and collapsed a major freeway in Oakland. None of that was supposed to happen in such a relatively small event.

So it’s clear a Katrina-like disaster could happen here. And what if the Big One struck while multiple brush fires blazed in Malibu and the East Bay hills above Oakland and Berkeley, while also spawning volcanic eruptions near Mammoth Lakes and from Mount Shasta?

The number of Californians rendered homeless could dwarf the tens of thousands who sought shelter in the New Orleans Superdome.

So Katrina offers lessons for


  • Where patching and rebuilding

levees was a low priority for the Bush Administration, California’s congressional delegation must unite and get federal funds to bring every road, bridge, water main and sewer in the state up to the most modern code or better.
The crash program that fixed many buildings and some bridges after the 1994 quake buckled some key bridges was incomplete and could prove totally inadequate.

  • California needs a far better response plan than Louisiana had ready for its disaster, one that most New Orleans residents knew was inevitable in the same way Californians realize the Big One will surely hit someday.

Just as it took four days after the hurricane for significant National Guard troops to arrive in New Orleans, it wasn’t until four days after the 1992 Los Angeles riots began that Guardsmen began to arrive and restore order. A much faster action plan must be in place for every one of California’s many predictable disasters. There should be no delays in executing the appropriate plan when disaster strikes.

  • It’s not only the state that should act, and act now. Individuals must prepare. New Orleans residents and people along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast had virtually no plans and few supplies on hand to cope with a disaster they well knew would happen someday.

Few carried hurricane insurance. It’s much the same here, where few who live in earthquake country bother to insure themselves and even fewer maintain secure supplies of drinking water and food.
The bottom line is this: Far more Californians could be rendered refugees in a truly major disaster here than in Louisiana and Mississippi. Katrina should be a warning for California to get cracking and get ready. We ignore it at our peril.

Write to political columnist Thomas Elias at