Stuff Life Teaches You — California Earthquake Edition

Every time a temblor rumbles somewhere other than where you are in California, something inside heaves a sigh of relief. And disappointment.

The 5.8 temblor that rattled California today struck mostly remote wilderness out in the Owens Valley, not far from Mr. Witney (California’s highest peak). A storekeeper in Lone Pine — the closest town to the epicenter — described it as sounding like an explosion. He went outside to see if a truck hadn’t hit the building.

Earthquakes are like no other natural disaster. Hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions even — they ll announce themselves well ahead of their arrival. Earthquakes hit the ground running as it were. That’s pretty much what they feel like — like the ground was “running”.

My first quake was the 1987 Whittier Narrows quake. Measuring in at 5.9 on the Richter Scale, it struck at 7:42 in the morning. My wife and I were renting a bungalow in West Hollywood — off the street and hidden behind a high fence with a swimming pool even. My German shepherd Sophie heard it first and ran outside, acting strangely.

As I went to ask her what was wrong, the temblor struck.

Every earthquake, I’ve learned, has its own sound signature. There’s a low, gutteral growl the earth makes. The shaking depends on a lot of factors: how strong the quake is, where the quake is (relative to where you are) and what the earth is like beneath your feet. A little rock beneath your feet is good. Too much sand is not. Structures, too, have a sound signature as they heave and vibrate.

There’s some famous footage of local NBC News anchor Kent Shockneck — on the air during one of the larger aftershocks — diving for cover —

Brings back memories… Throw in the sound of things falling, some breaking. You really can’t compare the experience to anything else. Then, finally the shaking stops.

Our WeHo bungalow did okay. No discernible damage aside from plenty of water lapping over the sides of the pool.

The 1994 Northridge Quake made much more of an impression. That stuck a little after 4:30 am. We owned a house in Los Feliz — in the hills. And our bedroom window looked out over the LA basin — a very nice view. I remember sitting up as the house started to rock (the initial quake hit a 6.7 on the Richter scale) and seeing most of the lights in the basin suddenly go dark as the power failed.

Our house was a 1927 Spanish that — being mostly stucco — cracked in plenty of places but didn’t fall down the way brick structures do during intense shaking. As the quake itself roared and the house shook, we heard glass breaking in other rooms. Things began to smash to the floor in our bedroom.

That’s when I learned by biggest earthquake lesson. Yes, running for a doorway is important. You don’t want to be sitting in your bed as the roof falls on you. That won’t look good when they go to dig you out later. But, when you leap out of bed, you better know where your shoes are. That broken stuff on the floor? It hurts when you step on it.

Ever since that quake — through all the subsequent ones that have rolled through LA while we’ve been here, — I’ve made it a point to put a pair of shoes by my bed — just in case.

There’s a life lesson in there — about being prepared. Every Californian should have an earthquake kit on hand. I don’t mean one of those silly backpacks filled with useless junk army-navy surplus stores sell for $50 (that “space blanket” is especially useless). I mean 3 – 5 days of food that won’t spoil including pet food. Adequate water. Working flashlights and a hand-crank radio (that you can use also to charge phone, computer & surplus power supplies.

Every Californian also should keep their shoes by their bed.

A confession: as much as earthquakes terrify me, they fascinate me too. The dread I feel for them is matched by the sheer coolness of the whole experience. The earth is shaking beneath your feet. You can feel the planet’s physical power. You are nothing to it.

If I were the earth and humans were messing with me constantly? I might never stop earthquaking.

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