The earth keeps shaking and I keep thinking about the Whittier Narrows Earthquake, whether I want to or not!

I really didn’t intend to write a series of posts on earthquakes or disaster preparedness, nor was it my original intention to build in some level of anticipation for a post with promised dramatic consequence. I opened the door of my thoughts thinking I’d simply report a bit on what I was hearing as newsworthy– a few interesting facts about local seismic activity.

A week ago the ground underfoot was shaking in unexpected spasms. Courtesy of the California Earthquake Authority we have a very expensive quote for earthquake insurance sitting in our inbox waiting for our decision. Yes, or no? And reminders of the debris from the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami approaching the west coast has been all the talk.

But I  have had the most difficult time settling down to write about our 1987 earthquake experience. And despite the fact that I promised to poke a little fun at myself with lighter notes of the event, I now realize how little I really want to think about it at all. No wonder we don’t do a better job of disaster preparedness! Pushing it aside is really very easy! Who wants to think about such things!

But since I opened the door in the first place, let’s go through it and then I’ll close it behind me!

My “earthquake account” of  the Whittier Narrows Earthquake is a bit all over the place, primarily due to the fact that  I wasn’t home when it struck.

October 1, 1987 I was a busy a mid-thirties mother getting my two children off to school. Jonathan was ten years old and rode his bike most mornings while I drove Aimee to high school, several miles from home. School started at 8:00 for both children, and so my carpool of teens loaded in the car around 7:15 while Jonathan traveled three blocks to school sometime  a little after 7:30.

Teen carpool music was delivered courtesy of our cool tape deck! The music played, the kids were talking and I was lost in thought, ready to drop them off and get on with my day. We were a few blocks from school when I executed a turn, amusing everyone with a huge bump of the tires. How had I so badly misjudged the distance of that curb?

Within moments we pulled up in front of the school and everyone prepared to get out.

As we pulled in front of the school we did notice other people looking at their cars, checking tires and milling around a bit at the curb. I saw it, but nothing registered. THEN, we noticed teachers filing out to the open areas in front of the school. What were they doing? That was odd! I can still see in my mind’s eye a mid-sized crowd walking with purpose and determination, yet the observation didn’t trigger questioning. Was I that oblivious? I think the answer is, “yes.”

“See you later,” I said with my usually cheer, and teens tumbled out of the car and headed  towards class.  And off I went.

I didn’t immediately shift from taped music to morning radio, but as I began to retrace my tracks it was now obvious something had happened. I passed broken glass windows and couldn’t avoid noticing power outages. Street lights were blinking and traffic was chaotic. I was within minutes from home when I finally turned on the radio and learned that at 7:42 we had experienced a strong quake.

Preliminary reports of the epicenter and damage to the city of Whittier didn’t alert me that we’d been affected in San Gabriel,  and even when I finally turned onto our street and observed all our neighbors congregating in the middle of the street I STILL  didn’t get the big picture or understand the severity of impact.

While pulling into my driveway my mother approached me, and although it was immediately obvious that she was badly shaken, I wasn’t really alarmed.  Very small temblors can be upsetting. It was as she began filling in the details that  I finally started to comprehend. The quake had hit precisely as I’d made that bumpy turn. We had laughed it off as my careless driving, sparing me any of the trauma! But Mom had been in the house and Jonathan on his bike halfway between home and school. They were severely shaken, physically and psychologically.

When the sidewalk began to visibly ripple and the power lines began to swing and arc above him, ten-year old Jonathan was thrown from his bike but still had the presence of mind to somehow manage to get back to his grandmother, navigating fallen obstacles, and struggling to maintain balance on the still uncertain pavement.

Timing is everything. Thankfully he was a block or so away because my parents’ brick chimney continued to fall into the driveway for several minutes creating an entirely different danger. As he came to the back door, my mom was struggling to regain her balance to get to him, walking through broken glass while the house was still bouncing. They stood outside in a huddle comforting each other and waiting for the mind to catch up with what they had experienced.

The main shock was a double event–separated by a one to two second interval, with the quake lasting four to five seconds. That doesn’t sound like very long, but what is described as “strong, vertical accelerations” is enough thrust to shake buildings off foundations. Standing in a house or building with the sounds of things breaking while the physical structures torque and groan is very distressing.

Originally assigned as 6.1, the magnitude was downgraded to 5.9, but with a relatively shallow depth, the quake was felt as far away as Las Vegas. That’s a significant quake.

At the time it was the strongest event in the Los Angeles area since the 1971 San Fernando earthquake. Three people died as a direct result, but five other deaths were associated, including a Southern California Edison worker caught in a landslide. My dad also worked for Edison, and as a result of the quake was called in to patrol and monitor high tension lines severely impacted by quake damage.  He didn’t return home for many days, but did manage to fly over our houses in a helicopter, taking a quick peek from above at his own home.

The fact that in a very mobile society  families are separated is another very significant factor in fear and trauma. Jay was away from home with the railroad, and at the time my grandparents, brother and his young family, and of course other friends and loved ones came to mind. We didn’t yet have cell phones with which to quickly reach those who were not home, but in an earthquake the cell phones usually don’t work anyway. Waiting to know if everyone is safe is part of any disaster.

Well, what about my house? I didn’t have nearly as much damage as my parents experienced. They live directly across the street, but they had much more structural damage. A home just a few houses up the block was red tagged. It’s all about the fault lines! This particular fault line had not previously been identified.

I have many reminders from that day, but it’s hard to share photos that simply show mess and chaos. When I finally made it into the house it was clear that every room was affected. It was like items placed on a blanket then thrown in the air with everything landing in a new unwelcome position. The kitchen cabinets were thrown open and broken dishes and glassware littered the counter. The refrigerator and freezer had emptied the contents on the floor.

Bookshelves in every room had either collapsed or just thrown contents on the floor. The house did sustain a few good cracks and our chimney collapsed leaving bricks and debris scattered about and presenting a safety hazard. Many collectibles and mini-heirlooms didn’t survive. Pieces of art glass and items with special meaning were shattered. And where was the dog? Cowering in the middle of it all, obviously terrified.

But we were safe.

And I promised there were lessons learned. And there were. I hope that over the past twenty-five years I have learned to “tune in” just a bit better! When something seems out-of-place or irregular, I am much more apt to take notice and do a little investigation. In this instance I dropped my daughter off in what could have been a dangerous situation. And it was under unsafe driving conditions that I needed to return to her school to get her and return home again an anxious couple of hours later.

On a more positive note one thing that’s stayed with me through the years is an awareness that things, even our home, aren’t to be held too tightly. I don’t collect anything of real value. People have value. I marvel at others living in “earthquake country” who are inclined towards collecting expensive pieces of art or glassware. I’m always aware that one good shake could cause our house to “turn on us.”

I frequently survey the rooms we live in and definitely the ones we sleep in, continually questioning what could fall on us. I move lamps and even small pieces of furniture away from sleeping children.  I’m aware at all times that a quake could hit in the night and I don’t want anything to fall on them. Tall furniture and cabinets are bolted to the walls.

And with every home improvement project we consider value versus consequence.  There is always a question about how we would feel if we lost considerable equity in our home, or lost it entirely, and what resources would it take to rebuild. FEMA loans are asset-based and most earthquake policies have deductibles between $75,000 and $100,000. Bottom line…you’re kind of on your own! We tend towards more conservative improvements so that we aren’t adding any additional tension to the already “shaky” circumstances!

I could sum up my feelings by saying that since we’ve seen with our own eyes what even a moderate shaker can do, we are realistic and hold onto things maybe a bit lighter, I think, than we did before. And we don’t live in fear, but we make as many provisions as we can to be prepared for the “just in case.”

So back to where I started a few days ago.

Power outages affect ATM machines. Do you have cash on hand? Do you know how to turn off the gas to the house? Do you have enough canned food and water on-hand? Emergency services point out that it’s irresponsible if you don’t. There is real concern that emergency responders are going to be so stretched that they are depending on the populace to be prepared to address their own needs for at least several days following a major earthquake.

Do you keep a good pair of walking shoes in your car? What if you need to walk a long distance over damaged roads and through dangerous debris?

Do you keep a pair of sturdy shoes next to your bed? In the dark you don’t want to be walking on broken glass!

And one that not everyone thinks about, but surely you  don’t have something heavy on the wall above your bed! I hate blank spots on my walls, but I keep it pretty sparse above the bed! In every major quake people are injured by items that fall off of walls!

OK…That’s about it. I’ve shared a reasonable review of events and now I can breathe lighter going into the new week!  We’ll continue our personal project augmenting our emergency supplies, and as with most emergency pre-planning, instituting action as an insurance policy means we rarely need to cash in!  Still, I feel more relaxed and reassured with better  preparation.

Let’s all have a very pleasant and safe week! I certainly expect it to be lovely! If you read this all the way to the end, thank you for staying with it! I promise no more emergency stories from me for a good long time! Whew! …Debra

“I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best.” Benjamin Disraeli

36 thoughts on “The earth keeps shaking and I keep thinking about the Whittier Narrows Earthquake, whether I want to or not!

  1. Wow Debra. What an experience! I have an aunt and uncle and many cousins in Northridge that went through the earthquake that was so big in the 90s….i remember my aunt saying every single thing in their house that was made of glass broke. she talks often about having shoes by her bed–and was very glad she had done that for decades.

    • The Northridge Earthquake was truly devastating, Kate. We had friends who lost their home in that one. I am glad your family was safe, despite severe property damage. I think in some ways that earthquake influenced my concern about being prepared even more than the Whittier. There was much more property damage and casualties. There’s no place to live that doesn’t have possibility of natural disasters, but preparation is important, isn’t it! I’d be a good boy scout..be prepared! :-)

  2. Debra, what a thing to have lived through, and to initially relegate to poor driving. The scariest things in my life have been the ones where I was oblivious and, only when looking back, did I realize how close I came to dying or losing someone I loved. I am glad you came through it with everything you loved intact. You are right. Things can be replaced. People can’t.

    Living in an earthquake zone myself, though less active than yours, I often think about these things. It is one of the primary reasons I’m glad we sold our house, with its pre-Portland cement era grout and soft brick. So many of our old Charleston buildings will be rubble if we have another quake like the one in 1886, because of the seepage of moisture from the ground into the foundations of buildings that are literally built with blocks of sand.

    • You are ahead of many to be aware that although earthquakes on the east coast may be more rare, historically there have been some very large ones. You also note how your wonderful historic city, by nature of age, isn’t earthquake retrofitted. I honestly don’t know anything about “pre-Portland cement era grout” and you have me headed over to my best friend, Mr. Google! I learn so much from following links or suggestions from you!

      Would you believe we had another earthquake yesterday, and again, close to home. It registered and was felt, but it wasn’t too exciting. So wherever we live, I just think it’s best to have an eye towards safety and do the best we can. I have yet to think of anywhere we can live that isn’t going to have some significant hazards, so I’m simply grateful or every day that we are safe!

  3. I call these times the woulda, shoulda, couldas, and sing praises when getting through them relatively unscathed. What a series of events in a very short amount of time, Debra, with gratitude for for your sharing your experiences. The public service you provide is invaluable, especially in things I overlook, like keeping good, sturdy shoes nearby. In winter, I always keep an extra pair of shoes and extra socks in the car, a blanket, water as well, especially when traveling any distance as winter here can be dangerous. You give me much to think about, Debra.

    Of course, the next time Tom asks if I’d met yet another curb with a car tire, something I’ve been know to do, I’ll just say it was an earthquake.

  4. Debra, this is the first time I think I have ever read such an account from someone whom I know. It puts disaster reports which come across the world into a new light completely. Thank you for sharing it: readiness for emergencies is so much more important when seen in the light of an account like yours. Thank you.

    • I struggled a bit, as I said, with deciding if I should even post about our experiences in the earthquake, Kate. It really was a long time ago, and I wasn’t sure what aspects would resonate with others. But I hope I came across as sincere in believing we all need to have some measure of preparation for any natural event, or even a world crisis that could interrupt our ability to easily obtain goods or take care of ourselves for a while. This may sound funny, but I was so young, and a little naive and oblivious, I don’t think the full impact of what COULD have happened even hit me until years later. Particularly in reference to my son’s safety. Sometimes, I hate to say it, but ignorance really is bliss. Now I worry about parents, children, grandchildren! Thank you, Kate. D

  5. What an awful experience and it’s always such a worry when things like this happen and you wonder where everyone in your family is and if they’re safe. You’ve made some good points about being prepared – those are things I’ve never thought of except I don’t like paintings hanging above my bed – you never know when they’ll come crashing down. xx

    • It’s funny, Charlie, but I always notice what’s above any bed I sleep in, even at a friend’s house. It just seems risky to me to have something that could come crashing down! I won’t keep talking about emergency preparation because I’ve almost had myself on “red alert” with all the talk, but we really should be a little less cavalier about our safety. I think it may be human nature. It’s too much to live with a high degree of awareness, but then we can’t pretend nothing will ever happen either! I guess it’s balance, and I don’t always have that! :-)

  6. Debra thank you so much for sharing this. I think it’s a valuable resource to occasionally unwrap the cloth of life’s catastrophes. I’m sure during the writing of it there was for you, a mini reliving of the event, not always easy, but your sharing also gives a sense of a deeper awareness of life in all its aspects.
    There is more I’d like to write but a second thank you for sharing will have to do for now. I’m still fragile from my latest stay in hospital.
    I hope you have a wonderful week, and on a personal note I wish you lived closer. I’d love to share a “cuppa” and conversation with you.
    Hugs from downunder
    Tricia

    • I hope you are continuing to really rest, Tricia. I, too, would just love to have a personal visit! But aren’t we fortunate to live in a time of such immediate electronic communication! I’m glad to move on from speaking about disasters, but as you know all too well, and I think of you often, there really are worse things than earthquakes. Personal losses are counted in different ways. I hope your week is filled with new strengthening! oxo Debra

  7. My goodness, what an experience you had! And what a wealth of wisdom you share! I confess, that I hardly use cash, always my debit card and occasional credit cards, and I know it’s not a good habit as loss of power can happen anywhere especially in the winter. Not being overly attached to material things is a good way to live. I simplified my life so much that I don’t worry about losing anything of material value.

    • Marie, I think the cash issue is probably one we really need to consider more than some of the others! Almost anything could come along to disrupt the computer systems operating the ATMs. And we have had so many small earthquakes lately that I admit I’m a little jumpy, but I don’t think about them in between events–at least not too much! I know you are one who values relationships and values simplicity. I can see that in all that you write, Marie! Debra

  8. Debra, that sounds a truly dreadful experience. It certainly sounds like it’s shaped your attitude in the years since. Thankfully in this part of the world we don’t really experience earthquakes, but your advice is so practical I think it could be used for all kinds of anticipated natural disasters. Just keeping my fingers and toes crossed for you during this time.

    • Thank you so much for a thoughtful reading of my story about our earthquake experiences. I really do believe that worldwide we need to have an awareness of disaster preparedness. I was hopeful that in telling the story I could create a little space for others to consider what they would need to have if emergency conditions existed in their town.

  9. I I just can’t imagine how terrifying it would be to experience an earthquake and how nerve-racking those minutes immediately following would be, trying to contact family members. You’ve listed some good, common sense things we can all do, whether or not we live in an earthquake prone area, that could be of big help in an emergency. Thinking it could never happen here is probably one of the worst thoughts possible. Thanks, Debra.

    • I’m laughing at myself a little bit, because I have made myself very jumpy with all the talk…the talk I started! LOL! But I do hope that we will all consider emergency preparedness. I’m sure to some extent the provisions we are making would be helpful to anyone. Even a really severe storm is disruptive. And I do think earthquake could happen anywhere, even if unlikely in a particular region. We had another small earthquake this morning, believe it or not. I personally like to think the earth is just letting off a little steam preventing a larger quake. Science says “no” to that theory, but I like to say they don’t know everything! :-)

  10. This was really interesting. I have been fascinated by quakes since I was a child. When they happened in California, my Dad would take out the Encyclopaedia Britannica and tell us all about the San Andreas fault line.

    How funny that you missed it, but I’m glad no one was hurt.

    • I’m glad I could share some practical emergency preparation tips, Fiona. I feel more accountable now, too, since I’ve told everyone we are augmenting our supplies! We are working through a nice long list of supplies. I hope I never need to use them, of course!

  11. I don’t know if I could live there with the serious disaster potential lurking in the back of my mind. We had a small earthquake about four years ago here in northern Illinois, believe it or not — the epicenter was at least fifty miles from our home, but the shaking woke me out of a sound sleep. And it just seems to go on and on and on. You’re a braver woman than I, Debra!

    • No kidding, Natalie! That would be really frightening to someone who didn’t grow up almost expecting earthquakes! I have been aware of earthquakes on the east coast, but I don’t recall if we heard about the one in DeKalb. Surely we did, but it just seems that there are accounts every year of fault lines we didn’t previously think of as active, waking up! I think it’s best we just don’t take for granted the idea that nothing will happen. Some preparation for natural disasters is probably very practical!

    • Thank you so much for commenting that the post was written lightly…I kind of struggled with that aspect! Everyone is living with stressful circumstances and I didn’t exactly know how to tell the story without being a little heavier than is good for us all! But I’ve done my “heavy topic” for now, and just hope we all give some serious thought to taking the time to think through how they would like to prepare for an emergency. I’m sure you have many such provisions in place, and had good reason to dip into them this past week! You’ve had a lot going on!!

  12. I so enjoyed reading this post because you wrote like it had just happened. As I read the account of when you experienced the earthquake I was so impressed with not only the details that you were able to retell, but also the emotions you were able to convey. I sensed the panic and bewilderment or even shock you must have felt when you realized it was a real earthquake. Having never experienced an earthquake, I can only imagine how powerless one must feel when the power of nature takes over. Thank you for this post, Thea.

  13. The tuning in is the key isn’t it, seeing and recognising things that are out of kilter is actually harder than it looks! We have numerous earthquakes in NZ, some very strong and it is something you never forget.. c

  14. Oye! I grew up in LA and lived through many of those earthquakes. I never got used to them so I understand how hard it is to breathe when you are anticipating another rumbler. Hang tight and be safe! Eva

  15. Dear Debra, I so wish that you had used the words “Earthquake Preparation” in your title. That would have been something that searchers could easily find on Goggle. The reason I say this is because I believe this essay you wrote about earthquakes is so inclusive and so informative that all those who live in an area where quakes can occur need to read it. What an experience. It seems so frightening to me. And many of the things you suggest at the end are important for those of live in tornado areas. (I lived here in Missouri in what is called “Tornado Alley.”) Thank you for your calm reasoning and your clarity. Peace.

  16. Wow what a story. I’ve heard many people talk about earthquake experiences, but this is the best personal account I’ve read. Love the way you thought you’d done something wrong driving around the corner! I didn’t realize that stuff fell out of the fridge and freezer.

  17. Debra, you give such a vivid description of what it is like to experience an earthquake and i can quite see why you want to be as well-prepared as possible for any future ones. I really felt for your son, having to cope with all that at just 10 years old. Good for him!

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