Las Vegas Sun

October 22, 2019

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The Big One: Could an earthquake cut us off from California?

Los Angeles

Monica Almeida / The New York Times

The skyline in Los Angeles, where officials in 2014 launched a plan to preserve structures and water lines in a major quake. A magnitude 7 earthquake could result in more than 400,000 California refugees.

What would happen to Nevada if a big earthquake hit California? We’d most likely be far enough away to avoid any direct damage, but secondary repercussions could potentially be severe.

Last month, the Los Angeles Times reported that a magnitude 7 earthquake or higher could result in more than 400,000 California refugees. While most of them would likely elect to stay in California, the state of Arizona has prepared for a potential Golden State deluge by running a massive emergency drill.

Here in Southern Nevada, we welcome a flood of Californians every day. According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, more than a quarter of Las Vegas’ annual 42 million-plus visitors travel here from Southern California. The average daily auto traffic at the Nevada/California border is 44,880, and that doesn’t include the seemingly endless hordes of Californians moving here for good to take advantage of Nevada’s comparatively lower cost of living.

For locals who have begun resenting Californians for raising our housing prices, consider this: We’d be in trouble if the Southern California-to-Southern Nevada pipeline were suddenly cut off. For us, that’s a significant aspect to the scare of “the Big One” hitting California. According to the LA Times, a major earthquake could move the San Andreas fault by as much as 30 feet, splitting the I-15 in two at the Cajon Pass.

If you’ve ever seen the lines of gridlock heading to California at the end of a long-weekend, you understand the cascading effect of even the smallest highway slow-down.

“Anytime you have the I-15 closed, it’s a significant event,” said Nevada Department of Transportation spokesperson Tony Illia. “That’s a major interstate. In many regards, it’s our lifeline to the outside. … For a community like Southern Nevada that is so dependent on tourists, conventions and visitors as the staple of its economy, having a functioning transport system is hugely important.”

NDOT works hard to prevent our transport system from failing; it inspects 1,900 bridges in Nevada a minimum of every two years. After a May 2015 earthquake in Caliente, Nevada, NDOT inspected every bridge within a 50-mile radius of the epicenter and found them all to be structurally sound.

“Nevada as a state has the best-rated bridges and roads in the country,” Illia said. In addition to being built to withstand seismic events, Nevada’s roads and bridges are all fairly new. “We’re not necessarily caught in the same position as California, in terms of resources or financing and re-investing in infrastructure.”

The disconnect between the needs and resources of the two states has been an obstacle to keeping the California to Nevada roads clear of gridlock. Illia points out that the Nevada portion of the I-15 is “smooth, freshly paved, with divided highways,” while the California portion of the highway “isn’t as good as we wish it were.” While NDOT does collaborate with CalTrans District 8, there’s only so much Nevada can do to improve the California portion of the Interstate 15. “They have different priorities and resources,” Illia said.

Every few years, Nevada teams up with California and other agencies (the National Guard; Las Vegas Metro Police; Nevada Highway Patrol; the gas, electrical and water companies, etc.) to perform a large-scale coordinated earthquake drill. The last one, which took place in 2016, tested a scenario in which an earthquake shook Las Vegas and was followed by a major earthquake in California along the San Andreas Fault.

Such exercises help emergency responders prepare and help planners establish steps to be undertaken and roles to be filled. Illia said NDOT just conducted an exercise with Project Neon, testing out the response to a truck spilling toxic chemicals and downing power lines.

“We took a day and came up with a worst-case scenario,” Illia said. The tests determined “what would we do, how to respond and how we would go about setting up a command center.”

NDOT also looks at what it would do in case of fuel shortages in an emergency scenario. NDOT has a fleet of state vehicles and its own refueling facilities.

In the case of a catastrophic event, however, it would need to ration fuel in order to save enough to operate needed heavy machinery, say for removing rubble from a roadway or clearing a landslide caused by an earthquake. “It’s always good to be prepared for the worst as much as you can be,” Illia said.