(Aug. 7) Is Southern California overdue for a big one? The answer is yes, according to recently published research from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif.

A produce industry so closely tied to that region had better prepare, industry leaders say.

“You have to have a crisis plan for what’s going to happen immediately, and then you have a business continuity plan of what are the first, second and next things you’re going to bring up online,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.

A new study of the 800-mile-long San Andreas Fault, encompassing 20 years of data, says the seismic strains on the southern end of the fault have been building to the point where a major quake — of magnitude 7 or greater — could occur at any time.

“For the public, the most important result of this study is that these data show definitively that the fault is a significant seismic hazard and is primed for another big earthquake,” Yuri Fialko, lead scientist in the study, said June 21 in a news release.

The study said such a quake is inevitable and that the only uncertainty is when will it occur.

A major quake hasn’t occurred on the southern end of the San Andreas Fault in 300 years, Fialko said. That portion of the fault cuts 100 miles through Palm Springs and a number of other cities in San Bernardino, Riverside and Imperial counties. Such an event would be felt throughout much of Southern California, including densely populated Los Angeles and San Diego.

NORTHRIDGE QUAKE

A quake with a magnitude of 6.7 shook Southern California at 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1994. The epicenter was Northridge, about 20 miles northwest of Los Angeles, beneath the San Fernando Valley, according to the Southern California Earthquake Data Center.

It was the first earthquake to strike directly under an urban area in the U.S. since the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, which was measured at 6.4. Fifty-one deaths and more than 9,000 injuries were blamed on the Northridge quake, which caused $44 billion in damage and left 25,000 homes uninhabitable.

“A couple of folks in the last Southern California earthquake were up and running in a day or so because they had a plan,” Means said. “And that’s the difference between getting up and running right away and not. When the crisis hits, that’s no time to start planning.”

State officials routinely run mock drills and other scenarios in planning for such a catastrophic event.

“Honestly, I think our best training has been from actual emergencies we’ve had to deal with,” said Jay Van Rein, spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. “Because (the Northridge quake) was fairly localized, that disaster didn’t really put too much of a strain on the system in terms of food.”

FEDERAL RESPONSE

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency coordinates with other state and federal agencies in the wake of a disaster.

“USDA’s role is primarily to coordinate to local ag producers,” said Larry Plumb, program manager at the Farm Service Agency’s Davis, Calif., office. “We have an emergency conservation program that repairs damaged irrigation systems. We have a number of irrigation lines that the shifting of the fault had actually cut off the water or ruptured the lines or created quite a bit of damage that you couldn’t see.”

Produce vendors in the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market are ever wary of the perils of tremors, said John Underwood, co-owner of Underwood & Wong Produce Inc.

“It’s always good to have some sort of backup plan, but as far as when it actually happens, we all readjust,” he said. “The people in this business, I think, are more adaptable and have the ability to change with the situation and put it into overdrive when they have to.

“They plan for a lot of things, but that kind of thing is tough,” Underwood said. “I know the possibility, especially for this area, is very strong.”

Agriculture associations would be ready to offer any help they could, said Tim Chelling, vice president of communications for Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers.

“As with other things, I think you’d simply bring to bear the expertise of the people here, and we have that expertise with transportation experts, government experts, that kind of thing,” he said. “Western Growers would play a key role in unifying and disseminating information and coordinating. I think there’s a real role for Western Growers, and I think that’s the kind of thing we react to.”