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Experts: Preparedness is Key to Surviving Big Earthquake

San Francisco was rocked by a devastating earthquake 100 years ago, and scientists say it is only a matter of time before another big one strikes. As San Franciscans commemorate the Great 1906 Earthquake, they are also making plans to ensure they survive the next one.

San Franciscan Rich Slavin says he has not made preparations for a big earthquake.

"Absolutely not," said Rich Slavin. "I think what will be, will be. I do not think there is a way that an individual can prepare for an earthquake. So just enjoy your life."

He says it is up to the government to help people in a disaster. Local and federal officials say the San Francisco resident is making a big mistake.

Earthquake specialist Jeff Lusk is with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. His agency, known as FEMA, was widely criticized for its slow response to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities in late August and September.

Lusk says the harsh reality is that government is limited in its ability to respond to a disaster, and that in a major earthquake, emergency responders will try to help the injured, but others may be on their own for several days.

"When I talk to friends and I talk to family, I say that we each have a responsibility to be able to take care of ourselves and take care of our community, so that we became a resource to a disaster and not a burden on that disaster," said Jeff Lusk.

Annmarie Conroy heads the San Francisco Office of Emergency Services, and says the city faces two challenges.

"And this is what we prepare for," said Annmarie Conroy. "One is having the city prepared, and second is having the citizens prepared. It is a two-prong approach."

Part of the preparation involves firefighters and police, who train regularly. In a major emergency, responders will come from other cities, including Los Angeles.

A southern California team can be mobilized for a local emergency or to help in a disaster in San Francisco. Los Angeles firefighter Terry DeJournett describes an emergency drill.

"The interior floors are what collapsed in this building," said Terry DeJournett.

Firefighters use a power saw to cut through the rubble.

Individuals in California are also getting training. At the San Francisco Red Cross, Tony Benedetti teaches life-saving skills.

"This is the proper way to open the airway, very simple, chin straight up," said Tony Benedetti. "Listen for five seconds…"

The Red Cross, fire department and other agencies hope to teach one-quarter of San Franciscans earthquake safety. Trained in emergency response, they will be on the front lines in any disaster.

Authorities are also focusing on those who were left behind when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, vulnerable populations such as the poor, disabled and homeless. Michael Wong coordinates an effort to reach another vulnerable group, San Francisco's Asian immigrants, some of whom speak little English. Bilingual students offer training to older Chinese residents.

"Yes, getting the two immigrant groups together, building up inter-generational relationships, and then learn from each other," said Michael Wong. "I think the youth can learn from the seniors and the seniors learn from the youth."

Red Cross worker Harris Bostic says that in any disaster, people must be able to survive on their own for at least three days. He urges residents to prepare an emergency kit with food, water and other supplies they consider essential.

"Like, you wear glasses, so I say have an extra pair of glasses in your kit," said Harris Bostic. "If you need saline solution for your contact lenses, if you need medicine, if you need diapers. If you need cigarettes. If that is going to help you in an emergency, put cigarettes in. They hate when I say that. I put chocolate in my kit because I need that."

San Francisco is famous for its old Victorian buildings, which add to the city's charm. But many are at risk in a major earthquake. High-rise buildings put up in the 1950s and '60s are also at risk.

Officials have ordered improvements on the most unsafe structures, but others are susceptible to collapse in a serious quake. Earthquake scientist Mary Lou Zoback says building engineers know how to minimize the danger.

"There are ways to strengthen these buildings, but you have to provide an economic incentive to the building owner to do this," said Mary Lou Zoback. "And we need to be creative from a policy perspective. And it is frustrating for us as scientists that you know this can be done, but you need the political will to do it."

Local officials ask, "who will pay for all the upgrades?" Rent-control laws in the city keep housing affordable for low and middle-income residents, and if owners are forced to make improvements, rents would need to be raised to cover the costs.

But the technology need not be sophisticated, says San Francisco chief building inspector Laurence Kornfield. He took reporters on a walking tour of a downtown neighborhood, and pointed out improvements to some structures.

"You know, it takes a very small amount of upgrade to prevent a building from collapsing or being severely damaged," said Laurence Kornfield. "A couple of sheets of plywood and a bunch of anchor bolts, and your building is not going to collapse."

Chris Geiger, who lives in Oakland, across San Francisco Bay, takes the advice to heart and says that he and his family are ready for an earthquake.

"We have probably about 20 gallons [75 liters] of drinking water and we have lots of canned food and so forth, and we have camp stoves and that sort of thing," said Chris Geiger. "And we have first aid kits."

He says his family also has a plan to call an out-of-town family member, who will serve as a point of contact for scattered relatives. They will evacuate, if necessary, south of San Francisco to his brother's house.

Scientists say there is nearly a two in three chance that another major earthquake will strike San Francisco by 2032, and that the only way to get through the disaster is to be ready for it.