Recently, I spoke to a group of Los Angeles business and civic leaders at a breakfast meeting at the City Club on Bunker Hill. The forum, organized by the American Red Cross, Wells Fargo & Co. and the Los Angeles Business Journal, was intended to bring the local business community together around the issue of disaster preparedness. My message to that group was simple; a major earthquake in Southern California is inevitable, but a disaster is not. Simply put, those who have invested in disaster readiness will reap the benefits of being prepared when their world collapses and chaos is the order of the day. The message may be simple, but as always, the devil is in the details. What should we do now to be ready for the (next) big earthquake?

I believe there are three things business and civic leaders ought to focus on right now. These actions are achievable at a relatively low cost, and likely to pay big dividends.

First, focus on the potential for structural damage. Have your business facility inspected by a professional to determine how "quake-worthy" it is. We may have strong building codes now, but they are not retroactive and our buildings are only as good as the building code that was in effect when the facility was built. A large part of Los Angeles was built in the 1950s and '60s, and those buildings may not perform well in the next "Big One."

When you purchase or lease a new facility you are making a decision about how well your business will survive an earthquake so be sure to ask the hard questions about structural strength and resilience, and act accordingly to mitigate shortfalls.

Next, focus on ways to prevent non-structural damage, the damage done to physical facilities, employees and customers by falling or flying objects. Our buildings might be regulated by better construction codes, but no agency regulates the interiors of buildings. It may be good to remember that four of the fatalities in the Northridge earthquake were caused by falling quake debris. What might unsecured bookshelves, computers, printers and the like do to those in your facility, and how much of your business information might you lose if your computers were destroyed? Undoubtedly, your business has invested heavily in compiling and archiving business information; is a $5 tie-down strap too much to invest to save it?

Finally, remember that we are all in this together, and being prepared for a major disaster should be everyone's concern. This may be one of the overlooked lessons of Hurricane Katrina. There must be enough pieces of the system in place that the whole system does not come apart. It does us no good to survive individually if the rest of the community is unable to recover. Who will be our customers and clients, who will consume our products or use our services? It is community preparedness that matters, not just individual survival, and preparedness at every level is a process, not an endpoint. Disaster readiness cannot be something we accomplish today and then move on to other concerns; preparedness must become our way of daily living.

Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the earthquake of 1857. In that quake, only the relatively small population of Los Angeles kept it from being remembered as a major killer. When a quake of that magnitude occurs again, the loss of life and property could be almost unimaginable, and Los Angeles might never be the same.

But it doesn't have to be that way. A modest investment in disaster readiness now will pay enormous dividends when, not if, there should be another major earthquake like the event a century and a half ago. I applaud the Red Cross for their efforts to heighten awareness about disaster readiness; they are a good partner to us all in this effort. I would encourage every business, organization, and individual to connect with the Red Cross to learn about readiness to make the inevitable quake something other than a disaster.

Lucile Jones, Ph.D., is a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena and is a commissioner of the California Seismic Safety Commission.

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