Friday, August 14, 2009


The first earthquake I ever felt was a small one that barely shook the stage while I was in band rehearsal a couple of months after we moved to California. The Drum Major screamed, "Earthquake!" but the rest of the band just sat calmly as the room swayed back and forth a little.
I was also in class at UC Davis when the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake (otherwise known as the earthquake that interrupted the World Series that almost nobody cared about anyway) hit the San Francisco Bay Area on October 17, 1989. Davis was about 100 miles from the epicenter, and we actually felt it quite strongly. I was in Human Physiology in the largest lecture hall on campus, and everyone in the room thought that the person behind them had kicked the back of their chair. Hard. The professor was standing, and couldn't feel it, but slowly realized that he had suddenly completely lost everyone's attention. Finally the class managed to point out to him that 1) his bike was rolling back and forth behind him, and 2) the trees outside were whipping back and forth without wind.

I got out to my car after class, and KGO, the Bay Area talk radio station to which my radio was always tuned was off the air. That's when I started worrying about my parents, who were living in the Bay Area at the time. By the time I was able to get home and call them, the phone lines were completely overwhelmed and useless.

Cut to my parents:

My parents were sitting on the couch watching everything swing and sway around them, and after a while, my mother said to my father, "Do you think we should get in a doorway or something?" by which time, it was over. They sat and watched as a large vase on the wall unit spun around and around on it's base, but eventually righted itself rather than falling over. My collie, Robin, was staying with them for a few months, and had had a couple of dizzy spells. They said he stood in the entryway with his legs splayed, obviously thinking this was another one.

KGO was off the air because their radio transmission tower...broke and fell into the bay.
I happened to be in Redlands, CA when the Landers and Big Bear twin earthquakes hit, June 28, 1992. I was doing field work for the consulting firm for which I worked and I had dragged one of our field technicians, Burt, down to Southern California to help. We had fyke nets in the Santa Ana River and Big Bear Creek up in the San Bernardino Mountains that we were checking a couple of times a day.

Unusually for me, just as I was falling asleep on the 27th, I thought to myself, "What would I do if there's an earthquake tonight? I'll get under that table." No, I had never thought anything like that before. No, I'm not psychic. I either felt one of the pre-shocks, or it was just a coincidence. I was literally thrown out of bed when the 7.6 magnitude Lander's quake hit at 4:58 AM (Redlands was ~40 miles from the epicenter), and woke up under that table thinking, "Damn! I should really wear more clothes to bed. I can't run outside wearing this!" Yes, if the building had collapsed, I would have been killed due to modesty.

I wasn't really frightened - more excited than anything. When I finally got dressed and outside, it was mostly over, the water was sloshing around in the pool a little, and the completely freaked out Burt was at my door with his bags packed, ready to leave. I convinced him that we should at least eat breakfast first. I also called my parents to tell them I was OK even though it was 5:00 AM, because I knew from previous experience that the phone lines would soon be overwhelmed.

A fairly strong aftershock hit while Burt and I were eating, but I convinced him that we should just stay and finish our job. We couldn't just leave the nets there, and "What are the chances that there will be another earthquake," I said, rolling my eyes. I remember saying this several times.

We left to go up into the San Bernardino mountains and a really strong aftershock hit while we were gassing up the truck. This helped him convince me that we should go back to our hotel and at least call in to see what our supervisor said. While we were on the phone, the 6.7 Big Bear earthquake hit. Although it was a much smaller earthquake, it was also much closer (~25 miles away) and a MUCH sharper jolt.

It was probably one of the most exciting things that has ever happened to me. Burt and I were taking turns yanking the phone out of each other's hands and relaying the earthquake to our poor supervisor blow-by-blow. We were on the second floor, and had a pretty good view.

Large amounts of water in the pool started sloshing out, which was just amazing to see.

The television in my room kept tilting forward until it was caught by the cord, and then thrown back onto the table.

The hotel we were in was right next to a freeway overpass, which was swaying violently back and forth. The teflon-lined joints in the road bed were doing their job, and sliding against each other - one half of the overpass was going one way, and the other the other way. The friction was so great, the joint started smoking. Although it was only offset by a few inches, it was incredible to watch!

It was an unusually clear day, and as I looked out at the mountains, it suddenly looked as thought they had spontaneously burst into flames. What looked like smoke started billowing up all over them. I realized this must be from numerous simultaneous land slides and relayed this to my poor supervisor.

Everything calmed down fairly quickly, and Burt was finally able to convince me to leave. Before we left, we drove out to explain to our client's office to let them know we were going and ask them to pull the nets when they got a chance. They told us that they had several work crews stuck up on the roads unable to move because landslides had blocked them on either side. Yes, the very same roads we would have been on if I had had my way. Later, we also found out that the nets had actually been buried under boulders. THAT would have been exciting had we been there... The nets were only a few miles from the epicenter of the Big Bear quake.

Amazingly enough, there were only three casualties from these two quakes, although sadly one of them was a three year old boy.


Kia said...

Wow, that makes our tormadoes seem like nothing! We usually don't name our tornadoes, either.
Oh, and did you hear there are fires out there in CA again?

Laurie said...

What, again?? *sniffs air* None nearby, anyway. This time.

Brother Phil said...

Every year the entire state of California catches on fire. I blame the Quagga mussels.

Lesley said...

My friend Chris is from Canada and while he's been here getting on ten years now, he's yet to feel a big earthquake. (KNOCK ON WOOD.) Once a year or so ago we were in the office when a little one hit. Like 4-ish range I think. Enough to feel, not enough to be any big deal. I mean except to Chris. WHO IMMEDIATELY DECLARED IN BETWEEN BOUTS OF HYPERVENTILATING THAT HE WAS MOVING IMMEDIATELY BACK TO CANADA. It's still endlessly funny to me to this day. Heh.

The '94 quake is still the worst on record for me personally. We were like five miles from the epicenter. My dad was up and downstairs at the time and what I remember so clearly is him shouting up to my mom and me to "stay upstairs! stay upstairs!" He though the place might come down. I think it was a year before I slept right again with the constant aftershocks and whatnot. I think Chris would have had a full-on heart attack.

Anonymous said...

So the moral of this story is to not be anywhere near you because you're an earthquake magnet!

My brother still lives in the Bay Area and had just crossed the Bay Bridge a few minutes before the earthquake hit. Freaked him the hell out.

I'd have to agree with Lesley, the '94 quake rocked my world in the worst way. The building I lived in was built in the 1920s and I'm amazed that sucker was still standing. I wore contacts at the time and I couldn't find my glasses when I was trying to run out of the building in the dark. I stepped in glass and hit my head.

It was the most frightening experience of my life. And the aftershocks were the worst. I think I slept fully clothed for about 6 months. And I wore shoes or slippers (even to bed) for the first couple of weeks.

BUT! I'd take them over tornados and hurricanes any day of the week.

Laurie said...

I think I AM an earthquake magnet. However, Bill has never felt one even though he's lived in California for 50+ years, so he must be some sort of earthquake-repelling mutant, and maybe together we cancel them out!

I'm glad I haven't had such a frightening experience. I was lucky enough to be far enough away each time that it was more exciting than anything. AND I'm glad that your brother made it before part of the cantilever section collapsed. I can't believe that they're only just building a new bridge 20 years later.

Chris is just a wuss. (Don't tell him I said that - tattooed guys make me nervous)

Brother Phil said...