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
- 4.1 earthquake jars Southern California (sciencedude.ocregister.com)