A Bubbling Cauldron
The Big One - Fiction or Prediction?
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The Big One - Fiction or Prediction?
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In the wake of Hurricane Katrina I offer the following scenario for you to consider. The scene is set sometime in the future - perhaps the not-too-distant future - and is viewed from the prism of a Newport-Mesa perspective.

PREAMBLE
Wednesday morning was typical of a late September day in southern California. By nine o'clock it was bright and sunny, with any hint of coastal overcast rapidly burning off. There was a mild off-shore breeze which promised to push the temperatures into the high 70s. It was the kind of day that chambers of commerce all over the southland love to tout.

In the Newport-Mesa area things were buzzing along as usual. The school children were back at their places with bright, shining faces. The shop owners were beginning to unlock their doors and freshen their inventory. The realtors were pounding themselves on their shoulder pads, getting ready for another "game day", when they might close a deal on a $5 million house. They could almost see that new Bentley convertible in their garage now.

The local police and firefighters were settling in for another routine day. It's long past the 7:00 a.m. shift change, so the patrol officers were comfortably snuggled into the seats of their cruisers and the motorcycle officers were busy staking out a nice, shady place from which to spring on unsuspecting transgressors. Radar guns were being warmed up.

At the Newport Beach and Costa Mesa city halls the public servants were busy checking plans, designing recreation programs, scheduling street repairs, collecting business tax dollars and generally going about the people's business.

Most commuters had long since left their homes in the Newport-Mesa and made their way to their offices - some as far as 50 miles away - and were on their second cup of coffee as they went about making a living so they could continue to live in this most perfect of locations.

The early morning rush of flights out of John Wayne Airport has eased off by now, with those air commuters to Sacramento already on the ground at their destination and busily lobbying for this or that in the state capitol.

Immigrant fast-food workers are walking to the bus stops enroute to their first job of the day, a 6 hour shift wrapping tacos and burritos, before heading to their janitorial job that evening. Such labor is necessary to live here and provide food and clothing for their handful of bright, bilingual American citizen children who have been at school for nearly two hours by now.

The regulars at the local Starbuck's, Deidrich's and Peet's are comfortably slumped down at their favorite tables, slurping jolts of caffeine at twenty-five cents a gulp and reading their newspapers in search of rare good news on this planet.

A neighbor is outside on a ladder, scraping his house in preparation for the application for a much needed fresh coat of paint. Another is in his garage, tinkering with the hot rod he's been building for most of the past decade. An elderly neighbor using a walker makes her way to the curb to check her mailbox, looking for anticipated treasures in the form of birthday cards from her great-grandchildren.

A covey of "soccer moms" bustles past the window on their post-carpool walk-and-chat, spurting out conversation at the rate of about ten words per step.

It was a normal day in this little slice of paradise... Then the world changed forever.

THE EVENT
It began as three seconds of an almost imperceptible sound, somewhere between a groan and a grind, followed by a loud crash - more like an explosion - and louder grinding, which seemed to go on forever. These sounds would be joined by more crashes, loud pops, explosions... and screams.

At precisely 9:00 a.m. the Newport-Inglewood Fault slipped, causing what would later be calculated as a magnitude 8.3 earthquake along it's more than 50 mile length. The epicenter of this event was located midway along the fault at approximately the entrance to Huntington Harbor at Anaheim Bay. The shaking lasted two minutes and ten seconds and was felt as far away as Las Vegas, San Diego, San Francisco, Portland and Salt Lake City.

Ten seconds after the beginning of the quake Newport Harbor resembled a huge toilet bowl, with water swirling and sinking as though someone had pressed the flush lever. Docks collapsed and boats tore from their moorings as the water disappeared below. Twenty seconds later sea water rushed in through the harbor entrance and over the peninsula and overfilled the void. This local tsunami, combined with the liquefaction of the low-lying, sandy areas, scoured every home and business from their foundations and piled the debris at the base of the bluff from the Santa Ana River to Corona del Mar.

The one-year old Newport Beach City Hall, that magnificent $50 million structure built amid much controversy at the site of the old city hall, was among the first casualties of the quake. The liquefaction caused the foundation to settle almost immediately and the surge from the tsunami drowned every worker trapped inside. The adjacent new fire station also sunk in the soil, trapping the equipment inside. The new parking structure also collapsed.

Hoag Hospital, even though it had gone through extensive retrofitting, had no chance. Perched on the bluff over looking the harbor, it sat squarely astride the fault line. When the quake hit the thrust tossed the buildings like a pup with a new toy. They first leaned north, then snapped back south in a whiplash-like motion. The parking structures pancaked, crushing more than 300 cars. Eventually, more than 1500 people would succumb to injuries or die in the fires that followed as flammable gases from ruptured lines ignited.

Behind the hospital, the condominiums on Superior Avenue collapsed, caught fire and slid down the hill toward Pacific Coast Highway.

The bridge over the Santa Ana River leading to Huntington Beach collapsed. The Arches Bridge which carried Newport Boulevard traffic across Pacific Coast Highway collapsed. The bridge over the Back Bay collapsed. The Reuben E. Lee, torn from it's berth, was pitched like an early morning newspaper onto the highway, blocking all lanes.

Two of the three Balboa ferries were found, upside down, near the Back Bay Bridge. The third ferry was later found sunk in the mud in the bay at what had been Balboa Island.

The tidal surge, a 45 foot wall of water, carried debris and water craft all the way to the Jamboree Road bridge. Most of the debris stopped there, but the water continued on to the San Diego Freeway. Unsuspecting campers at Newport Dunes, mostly snowbirds enjoying the weather in the shade of their mammoth retirement motorhomes, were swept away. Most were never identified.

Near the end of the Back Bay, the Fletcher Jones Mercedes dealership on Jamboree Road was destroyed by the tidal surge. Some displaced Mercedes automobiles were found along San Diego Creek near the 405 freeway, having washed that far in the surge.

Homes on every island in the harbor and on the peninsula were completely obliterated - not a single structure was spared as the harbor morphed into a shallow, level quagmire of mud and debris. The marine fuel tanks on the peninsula and Balboa Island ruptured. The spreading fuel, ignited by downed power lines, made a flaming cauldron one hundred yards in each direction. Those flames eventually ignited the remnants of structures nearby, which burned unabated for several hours. Balboa Island became a funeral pyre.

The boulders which formed the rocky spines of the jetties at the harbor mouth were tossed like so many marbles, blocking the entrance and exposing the harbor to damaging swells for months to come. The bait barge was first upended, then tossed onto the rocks by the surge.

The flow from the Santa Ana River mouth was re-directed as the jetties were destroyed. The flow turned south into West Newport which became an extension of Newport Harbor until jetty repairs were completed eight months later.

On the high ground folks fared better, but not much. At Newport Center the high rise buildings swayed and rocked. Two eventually collapsed completely before the shaking stopped, leaving 350 people dead or injured.

In an amazing bit of irony, in Newport Heights St. Andrew's Church - which was finally undergoing it's very controversial expansion - suffered major structural damage, caught fire and burned to the ground. The loss was estimated at $30 million.

Across the street, Newport Harbor High School - which had recently completed Measure A renovations - was so severely damaged that it was later declared a total loss. Five hundred children lost their lives that morning, with another three hundred severely injured, as the buildings buckled and crumbled around them. Corona del Mar High School didn't suffer the same extensive damage, but several buildings would require demolition and repair. Two dozen children were killed and another 150 were injured.

At Costa Mesa High School, Estancia High School and Orange Coast College extensive damage to buildings was reported. The brand new Olympic swimming pool fractured and was a total loss. Between the three schools, 480 people were killed and more than 1,000 were injured. Throughout the school district more than 3,000 children, teachers and administrators were killed and 6,250 injured. The athletic fields at all the schools became triage centers as the overwhelmed emergency workers attempted to save the lives of survivors.

The San Joaquin Hills Reservoir below Pacific View Memorial Park suffered extensive damage, which resulted in it's contents washing down hill to the back bay. At the cemetery, significant earth slippage was reported, with many caskets exposed.

Up on Signal Peak, site of communication towers and a reference point for local flyers, the antennas whipped like willows in the wind but somehow managed to stay upright. Power to the towers was interrupted, which shut them down for more than a week.

Along King's Road, 90% of the homes on the edge of the bluff collapsed and became part of the debris pile created by the tsunami surge. Only 5% of the homes in the Newport Heights area came out unscathed. Most of those were the small, single story older homes which somehow managed to ride out the quake and the subsequent fires.

Bluff top homes along the coast south to Dana Point were severely damaged. The buildings at Crystal Cove were destroyed - swallowed up by the sea, as were the trailers at El Morro.

Homes in Emerald Bay were badly damaged, some later declared a total loss as the temblor rippled south and caused landslides.

Pacific Coast Highway buckled, shifting as much as ten feet in places, throughout it's length. It became impassible in Corona del Mar - or what was left of it. The fires that started within fifteen minutes of the quake were driven by the mild Santa Anna wind that morning. Ruptured residential gas lines were ignited by fallen power lines. Four hundred homes on the south side of Coast Highway in Corona del Mar were burned to the ground because firefighters were unable to reach them and the water mains were damaged, resulting in no pressure in that area.

In the higher locations, Spyglass Hill and Newport Coast, the two-minute duration of the shaking caused landslides which eventually claimed another three hundred multi-million dollar homes. Laguna Beach suffered a similar fate, as the unstable canyons once again failed. 275 homes were destroyed by landslides or the resultant fires.

Los Angeles International Airport, Long Beach Airport and John Wayne Airport lost the use of all runways as the earth shifted and buckled. It was later estimated that it would take nearly $2 billion to repair LAX. Long Beach, with a main runway paralleling the fault destroyed by the quake, will require complete rebuilding to the tune of $1 billion. The terminals at John Wayne were so damaged that, along with the runway repair, costs would run to more than $1.75 billion. In another bit of irony, The Great Park in Irvine - site of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and potential site of an intercontinental airport - suffered only minor damage as the quake spread on a more southerly route.

North along the coast, Huntington Beach lost every home in low-lying areas. Damage to the Santa Ana River channel walls would take months to repair. In the meantime, the tsunami surge forced sea water through the break and inundated the city, as well as parts of Fountain Valley. The hotels along Coast Highway in Huntington Beach were declared a total loss.

Pacific Coast Highway from the Santa Ana River to Long Beach simply disappeared below the sea and sand.

The power plant at Huntington Beach, built on the sand, failed within the first minute of the quake as the soil liquefied and the structure sank twelve feet in places. It will be a total loss.

In Long Beach, which had suffered catastrophic losses when a quake hit that city on the same fault in 1933, was destroyed. The 1933 quake, a magnitude 6.3, resulted in 115 lives lost and 40 million in damage. The current quake is 100 times more powerful. Not one multi-story building was left un-damaged. All beach front properties suffered the same fate as Newport Beach and Huntington Beach. The business district was annihilated as building after building collapsed and burned.

The huge ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, which handled 40% of all cargo in the United States, were so damaged that the economic loss to this country over the next three years that it would take to return them to good working order was estimated at $2 trillion.

Oil wells in Huntington Beach, Seal Beach, Long Beach and Newport Beach failed, dumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil onto the adjacent areas. The fires which were ignited at those locations and at the refineries in Wilmington took two months to finally extinguish. The acrid smoke filled the entire Los Angeles basin for weeks.

In Costa Mesa, every bridge over the 55 and 405 freeways failed, stranding residents and travelers amid piles of debris. The damage on the 405 stretched all the way to LAX, making driving in the region all but impossible except for those on motorcycles. Downed power lines made most roads impassible for nearly a week following the quake. Water lines fractured, severely limiting fire fighting capability and calling for emergency rationing. Despite the recent seismic retrofitting, that erector set exoskeleton left incomplete by the original contractor, the City Hall suffered severe damage. No records were lost, although the severity of the quake knocked out communications. The Orange County Fairgrounds became a disaster relief point for nearly 60,000 displaced people from Costa Mesa and neighboring communities.

Bethel Towers, the high rise senior living facility, was whip-sawed back and forth for the duration of the quake. The residents and staff, who were just beginning their day, suffered 95% casualties. It took three days to extricate the handful of injured elderly survivors. The building was so damaged that it was later demolished.

At South Coast Plaza, pedestrian bridges collapsed, killing dozens of people on their way to work. Both of the main plaza structures on either side of Bear Street suffered major structural damage, with the parts of the roof collapsing at both locations, trapping hundreds of early morning shoppers.

Actors and crew rehearsing at the Performing Arts Center were injured as parts of the structures failed.

In Fountain Valley, the effluent being treated at the sewage plant was pitched like you would toss the residue from a cup of coffee. The infrastructure was so damaged that it would take 8 months to repair, leaving more than a million customers without sewage treatment.

In the distance smoke could be seen billowing from the tunnels of the TriTunnel Express, below Saddleback Peak. That multi-billion dollar boondoggle that was supposed to relieve traffic on the 91 Freeway had been open for a few months, carrying a much smaller volume of traffic than was predicted. During the quake two of the four active faults crossed by the three tunnels slipped, causing the tunnels to displace ten feet. Both oil pipelines carried by the tunnels ruptured, spilling the flammable fluid into the tunnels. One of the two 500,000 volt electric transmission lines were severed and ignited the oil. More than 2,000 automobile drivers and 400 truckers, with rigs being carried on the train through the third tunnel, were trapped in the 12 miles of smoke-filled tunnel and perished. It took 2 hours before crews could shut off the flow and 4 days before the smoke in the tunnels cleared enough for recovery efforts to begin.

On Catalina Island, with the exception of buildings higher than 50 feet above sea level, the city of Avalon was wiped out by the tsunami. The Casino building was left standing, although pulled off it's foundation and mortally wounded. It would later be demolished. Two Harbors was scrubbed of any structures as the surge crossed the island at that point.

The nuclear power plant at San Onofre, which suffered no structural damage from the quake, was flooded by the tsunami. The thirty foot high flood walls proved to be fifteen feet too short to handle the surge that reached the site at the same time Catalina was hit. The generators went off line, but no nuclear disaster occurred.

Offshore oil wells in the Catalina Channel were dislodged by the tsunami. Only one survived intact and emergency shut-off devices on some rigs failed, allowing thousands of gallons of oil to pour into the ocean in the channel. The ecological damage would make the Exxon Valdez disaster look like a mere oil spot on your garage floor by comparison.

The National Guard facility at Los Alamitos was severely damaged and was unusable. The Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro twisted, buckled and suffered a failure of a 100 foot section in the center of the span. It would take ten months to repair it.

Much of southern California resembled a war zone. Martial law was declared within days of the quake because desperate, starving people began looting to survive. Roving bands of armed thugs roamed un-checked until National Guard troops made their way to the area. Dusk to dawn curfews were imposed for months. Violators were shot by nervous guardsmen who had been fired upon as they patrolled the streets.

THE AFTERMATH
In the aftermath of the quake, those residents who survived were forced to make difficult decisions. Some tried to remain in their homes, but it would take weeks to restore even the most basic electric, gas and water service. The sewer systems of all cities along the fault were destroyed, rendering even neighborhoods which came through the quake otherwise unscathed, uninhabitable. Residents were forced to evacuate to other locations, most of which were further inland.

Some of the most valuable real estate in the world disappeared, swallowed up by the ocean as the fault released energy equivalent to 2.5 billion tons of TNT.

Aerial video of the disaster area was almost incomprehensible. Locally, the Balboa Peninsula, once such a vibrant, happy place, has been reduced to a strip of sand and debris only twenty-five yards wide in most places. The remnants of the islands within the harbor are barely visible below the surface now. Since no insurance company will ever again provide coverage for homes in those areas, it was turned into a national seashore recreation area. It will take a decade to dredge the harbor to a depth sufficient for safe pleasure boat use again.

Throughout southern California the casualty count was almost beyond belief. At least 310,000 people were killed in the quake or shortly thereafter from quake-related injuries. 670,000 people were injured. 2.6 million lost their homes. More than 60,000 businesses were destroyed.

Once the regional refugee data base was created a month after the quake, it took many more weeks for families to be re-connected. Thousands of people were never accounted for and reports of bodies floating in the Catalina Channel were recorded for two months following the quake.

The inquiry into the quake and it's damage six months later determined that the direct cost to replace the damaged infrastructure would be more than $280 billion. Economic impact to the nation was conservatively estimated at over $5 trillion. Some communities ceased to exist. The peninsula and islands in Newport Beach were gone, never to be reclaimed. Seal Beach and coastal parts of Huntington Beach and Long Beach were gone, with the sea now covering those areas. Three major insurance companies declared bankruptcy and the California Earthquake Authority, overwhelmed by claims, was declared insolvent and disbanded.

It took a month for some local governments to begin functioning again. It will take a nearly a decade to re-construct Newport Beach public records because they all were lost when the City Hall was destroyed. Every civic leader with the exception of the Police Chief was killed in the quake. Costa Mesa, in a move prompted by the circumstances, annexed Newport Beach and changed the name of the combined city to Newport Mesa. The seat of government for this new city was located at the much-maligned former Triangle Square, which inexplicably survived the quake with almost no damage.

THE QUESTION
Is this story fiction or prediction? You tell me. We've all watched the coverage of the damage and despair along the Gulf Coast caused by Hurricane Katrina in recent weeks. Do you think my little story over-estimates the damage that would be done by a major earthquake along the Newport-Inglewood Fault? Do your own research. Ask the experts about it. Think about it. Lose some sleep over it. Most of all, prepare for it.