Southern Californians dropped to the ground, covered their heads and held on to the furniture Thursday for a mock “Big One” – an earthquake drill billed as the largest in U.S. history and aimed at testing everyone from state leaders to students who donned fake blood to play victim.
Local television stations interrupted their regular programming to announce the drill and covered it as they would a major earthquake, though with continual reminders that the emergency wasn't real. Firefighters with chain saws and shovels broke through facades searching for mock victims, wading in some instances through blinding clouds of manufactured smoke.
Sirens blared at Bishop Alemany High School, a San Fernando Valley campus badly damaged by a 1971 temblor and destroyed by the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
Spanish teacher Fiorella Linares, who had been checking homework, ordered her approximately 20 students to “cover,” and they dove under desks and grabbed onto the legs of chairs.
Some of the teens giggled and joked. “I'm dying,” one shouted in mock horror.
“Don't laugh,” Linares scolded. “You have to think about what if this really happened.”
The exercise was based on a hypothetical magnitude-7.8 temblor rupturing the southern San Andreas Fault – an event that scientists call the feared “Big One.” Such a quake would cause 1,800 deaths and $200 billion in damage, researchers estimate.
Local governments, emergency responders, schools, hospitals, churches, businesses and residents were taking part. Organizers said some 5 million people had signed up to participate.
“We're trying to make it a communal event,” U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Lucy Jones, who helped create the crisis scenario, said before the event.
The minimum participation calls for people to dive for safety. Firefighters and other emergency responders are staging full-scale exercises complete with search-and-rescue missions and medical triaging of people posing as casualty victims.
Shortly before the fake quake struck, Alemany students lined up to receive makeup that would turn them into simulated quake victims. Fire department workers applied fake blood, makeup and wax to create gruesome injuries.
California is the most seismically active state in the Lower 48. Earlier this year, the USGS calculated that the state faces a 46 percent chance of being hit by a 7.5 or larger quake in the next 30 years with the epicenter likely in Southern California.
Thursday's mock quake was in a section of the San Andreas that has not popped in more than three centuries. Scientists fear stress buildup could unleash a big quake in the near future.
Under the scenario, the southern San Andreas suddenly awakens near the Mexican border, sending shock waves marching toward Los Angeles and eventually stopping in the high desert. The 200-mile rupture would leave a path of destruction. Shaking would last three minutes.
The drill coincides with an annual statewide preparedness event put on by the state. Besides rehearsing for natural disasters, the state in the past has responded to simulated terrorist attacks.
It's not all doom and gloom. Scientists plan to follow up the drill with a rally in downtown Los Angeles today.