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May 17

Mother Earth Moves

In Brief—An earthquake strikes an urban area. This piece describes Bay’s personal experiences with just two quakes of the many that rattle California every year. A sense of humor helps and insurance provides some solace, but Mother Earth always holds the trump card.

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An Earthquake Strikes—

Buildings sway and crack, glass windows shower shards on buckling sidewalks, car alarms join in a chorus of beeping, sparks arc from bouncing telephone lines, cliffs crumble carrying collapsing houses downward, electricity stops flowing, vehicles sink as once-solid streets are submerged in liquefying soil, freeways collapse on unlucky motorists, newly-built structures give way to Mother Nature. An earthquake hits in urban Southern California.

As the number of victims from the devastating Nepalese earthquake approaches 9,000 as of this writing, I reflected on the major earthquakes—above 6.0 on the Moment Magnitude Scale (MMS)—that I have personally experienced during my years in California. A 6.0 MMS quake is considered to be major. The Nepalese quake was estimated to be at least 7.8, and that country does not have the stringent building codes of Southern California. Put plainly, that was a huge earthquake for any country.

Click here to see the devastation of the Nepalese earthquake!!

Smaller earthquakes occur with some frequency in California causing me to be rather blasé. I recall laughing about one smaller quake that shook the building at Fox during my tenure there. When I entered the outer office chuckling I found the others under their desks. Not everybody is as casual as I was. The Nepalese quake was certainly far from a laughing matter.

Back to my personal experiences. In early 1971 a major quake hit Sylmar, California, collapsing a newly-built hospital resulting in forty-nine deaths. Several miles away in the Hollywood Hills, my wife and I were asleep when the quake rudely woke us as the house bounced and swayed. Fearing a house collapse, I threw myself over my frightened wife. Fortunately, both we and the house survived the shock rattled but unscathed.

Driving to my law office in Santa Monica, I passed damaged buildings, dark traffic lights and little traffic. Sidewalks were covered with broken glass as the business buildings stood empty of workers. In the restaurant where I ate breakfast, the few waitresses and diners talked nervously of nothing but the quake and how it affected them. In the office, books littered the floor requiring those of us who managed to make it to restore order.

In the late afternoon several years later, I sat beside my hang glider on the mountainside overlooking the forbidding rubble of the collapsed hospital waiting for the little flag to flutter its message of a promising thermal. The rubble in the valley was a stark reminder of the deadly devastation of 1971.

Alerted by the fluttering flag, I launched and was lifted by a column of rising air. Thirty meters away a red-tailed hawk shared the thermal with me. For an hour I experienced the quiet joy of soaring with the birds, but the fast-fading late afternoon thermals told me it was time to land. The abrupt appearance of downward-flowing air raised my concern of landing in the rubble. It became clear that I might not make the landing area. The risk of injury darkened my thoughts.

Rationality whispered that the only solution was to dive and gain as much speed as possible. I was acutely aware of the jagged rubble below me and the barbed wire fence surrounding the landing area ahead. Suddenly, everything seemed to go into slow-motion. Ever so slowly, I stuck out my feet and trampolined off the fence safely into the landing area. Unfortunately, a hundred meters behind me, another flier was forced to land in the rubble. Belatedly, the earthquake claimed another injured victim.

The 1994 Northridge Earthquake—

The headboard of the bed began beating against the wall in the darkness of that January morning. Car alarms sounded in unison and sparks arced from the overhead lines behind the house. Something crashed downstairs. It was a big one measuring 6.7. Our house was in escrow as the family prepared to move to Sweden. We had visions of extensive damage that would nullify the sale. Luckily, a broken table lamp was all the damage we experienced.

Dressing hurriedly, I set out to check the damage sustained in the Palisades. In the dawn light, I found that much of our friends’ house had tumbled down the cliff above the Coast Highway. Fortunately, they were on vacation, but I recalled telling them I thought they were crazy to buy a house on a cliff even if it had a wonderful view of the Pacific. They assured me that a city engineer had told them the land was stable. That was years before a 6.7 earthquake caused the cliff to give way and their house to go with it.

As I discovered, the city itself was deeply wounded. It wasn’t the first time strict building codes were insufficient to protect life and property. It will happen again. It’s just a matter of time. Welcome to California and the Rim of Fire.

My opening paragraph reflects just a few of the results of Mother Earth’s powers. A survey of the globe shows the power and variability of Earth’s many ways of flexing its muscles. It’s not just shaking land masses, but tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, tornados and fiery volcanoes. A hydrogen bomb is just a feeble sneeze compared with the powers of the Earth. Count yourself lucky if you’ve not experienced at least one of these. I did. And though I still have my sense of humor, a measure of humility is the bonus.

2 comments

  1. Donna Boe

    I never experienced the big earthquakes you did, but we did have several strong ones when we lived in Japan (enough to knock over the book shelves) and a few smaller ones here in Idaho. Our son escaped injury in the Bay area (can’t remember the year) when an earthquake caused the freeway exit to collapse a few minutes after he had driven over it.
    Strict building codes and sensible site selection are probably the only protections we can have, but when the really big one comes -as in Nepal – it’s just a matter of luck.

    1. Don Bay

      Japan like California lies on the Ring of Fire that is subject to big earthquakes and occasional volcanic activity. Your son has experienced some big quakes in California and will no doubt experience more if he continues to live there. Idaho, by contrast, is in a relatively stable area and unlikely to experience big ones. That said, I note that “fracking” to extract oil is now causing quakes in usually quiet areas.

      It strikes me funny that many people say they wouldn’t live in California where earthquakes are relatively infrequent while those same people experience tornados and floods every year. Go figure. Shows the power of publicity.

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