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.

Why I HATE Missing A Good Earthquake

I’ve lived in Southern California for 35 years — longer than I’ve lived anywhere. That almost makes me a native. It doesn’t — and for that I’ll be eternally sad. I grew up in the east — in a Jewish suburb in northwest Baltimore. I went to Vassar — 90 minutes north of NYC. After college, I lived in and around New York for years. My future was there. It wasn’t a question.

LA is seductive in myriad ways. I could go on (in fact, I do — in the book I just finished How To Live Bullshit Free {And Other Showbiz Tales} — which I am currently agent shopping). Within three days of visiting back in 1985, I went from being an LA-Hater to being… there’s no nice way to put it — LA’s bitch. More correctly — one of LA’s bitches. There are millions of us here. Most don’t realize that’s the nature of our relationship with LA. We’re the betas and always will be. The bottom line — once LA has you, you’re done. It’s just a matter of time before you get lured too close to the sun — like Icarus. Then your wings — all wax and feathers — melt, and you plunge back to earth.

Seasons are another thing we experience minimally (though it’s changing — almost as if climate change were real). From November to March, the daytime highs hover in the low 70’s. For Angelenos that means break out the down. I’ve been to Glasgow in July — and it was colder than LA in February — yet everyone still acted like it was summer. Southern California weather ruins everyone’s idea of “cold”. LA is overflowing with British ex-pats. They’re here for the weather (or the business) and they’re the first ones to shiver when the mercury dips below 80.

One of the unseen dangers (like the sun’s heat to Icarus), is California’s geology, perched, as it is astride the San Andreas Fault.

I’ve lived in Southern California for 35 years — longer than I’ve lived anywhere.  That almost makes me a native.  It doesn’t — and for that I’ll be eternally sad.  I grew up in the east — in a Jewish suburb in northwest Baltimore.  I went to Vassar — 90 minutes north of NYC.  After college, I lived in and around New York for years.  My future was there.  It wasn’t a question.

LA is seductive in myriad ways.  I could go on (in fact, I do — in the book I just finished How To Live Bullshit Free {And Other Showbiz Tales} — which I am currently agent shopping).  Within three days of visiting back in 1985, I went from being an LA-Hater to being… there’s no nice way to put it — LA’s bitch.  More correctly — one of LA’s bitches.  There are millions of us here.  Most don’t realize that’s the nature of our relationship with LA.  We’re the betas and always will be.  The bottom line — once LA has you, you’re done.  It’s just a matter of time before you get lured too close to the sun — like Icarus.  Then your wings — all wax and feathers — melt, and you plunge back to earth.

Everywhere on the planet has a fatal flaw — where human mortality is concerned.  The mid-west has tornadoes, the east coast has blizzards and hurricanes but even worse — the mid-west and the east coast have horrible humidity.  Having lived in LA as long as I have, I now find the east coast’s humidity unbearable.  We get humidity from time to time — but then it goes home again.

Seasons are another thing we experience minimally (though it’s changing — almost as if climate change were real).  From November to March, the daytime highs hover in the low 70’s.  For Angelenos that means break out the down.  I’ve been to Glasgow in July — and it was colder than LA in February — yet everyone still acted like it was summer.  Southern California weather ruins everyone’s idea of “cold”.  LA is overflowing with British ex-pats.  They’re here for the weather (or the business) and they’re the first ones to shiver when the mercury dips below 80.

One of the unseen dangers (like the sun’s heat to Icarus), is California’s geology, perched, as it is astride the San Andreas Fault.

The San Andreas isn’t the only fault under our feet.  There are thousands.  That we know of.  It’s just a simple fact of Life: a massive, catastrophic earthquake lies in California’s future.  It will devastate the state.  And then we’ll rebuild.  Cos it’s California and regardless of the destruction our geology causes, there’s no place else on the planet quite like it.

Provided that you’re staying regardless, the next question is — how do you feel about earthquakes?  How do you feel during them?  If earthquakes haven’t scared you back across the state line, headed home to wherever you came from, you must find them tolerable.  If you’re like me, deep down?  You actually kind of like them.

My first earthquake (and by earthquake, I don’t mean those little 4-pointers that feel no different from a big truck passing by) was the Whittier Narrows quake in 1987.  The quake hit a 5.9 at 7:42 a.m. on October 1 and did an estimated $213–358  million of damage, injuring 200, killing three people directly with five  additional earthquake-related fatalities.  At the time, I lived in Hollywood — in a 2-bedroom, 1 bath bungalow (now razed & replaced by squat, ugly condos) with off the street parking for 4 cars and a pool — all surrounded by a high fence and lots of greenery so it felt like a secure compound).

The first thing about earthquakes — they all sound a little different.  Of course they do — their circumstances are all completely different.  Our experience of an earthquake has everything to do with the earthquake itself — where it originates, why it originates, what soil type or water sits above it.  In Hollywood, it felt like the house was undulating.  It’s that odd sensation that suddenly opens your ears to the low, guttural growl thrumming beneath your feet.  It’s the earth talking to you.  Literally.

I felt (and have always felt) two very distinct reactions.  The first is a kind of animal terror.  The ground is moving.  You know you could be in mortal peril.  There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.  It sounds inside your head kinda like “Aaaaaaaaauuuuuuuggghhhhhhhhhhhh!”

At the exact same time, another piece of you (remember — you stayed here knowing this was a possibility) pulls up a chair, sits down and actually thrills to the sheer coolness of it.  You’re witnessing geology!

My wife and I ran to the nearest doorway.  It didn’t support anything.  Had the house collapsed, we would have been crushed.  But, from where we stood, we could see the dog outside — standing by the pool.  She was mystified — as much by the sound as by the way waves were lapping over the sides of the pool, spilling into the garden.

The house itself — the structure (it was wood and stucco) also had a sound signature as it heaved and sighed, cracking but not failing as it dissipated the earthquake’s effects into the air.  Quick side note.  I was on the 38th floor of a highrise for one good shaker (one of the smaller majors).  The building was designed to sway in the event of an earthquake; the swaying is meant to mitigate the quake’s impact on the structure.  When inside such a building, one tells oneself that the swaying is good — one won’t pitch out a window; but the animal won’t hear it; the animal you is screaming even louder than if it were experiencing this at ground level). Brick structures — being a lot more rigid — fair badly in earthquakes.  Fireplaces, for instance, suffer much more than the wood & stucco houses they’re part of.

When the shaking finally stops — and you see that you’re okay — the next step is check out the damage.  During the Northridge quake (January 17, 1994 at 4:30 a.m.), we lived in the hills of Los Feliz on Ronda Vista Drive in a 1927 Spanish (meaning stucco but with a brick fireplace covered in stucco).  We had a view of the LA basin (looking south).  City lights as the real estate people call it here.

My first impressions — the feel of the house swaying — the earth growling — then darkness.  Though we had a shade lowered on the picture window in our bedroom, LA’s city lights are still pretty damned bright.  It never gets truly dark in LA — unless the lights go out.  As they did.

That added to the animal terror.  Then another new component — the sound of things in the house falling and breaking.  Still — the wow factor plays. 

According to Wikipedia, “The quake had a duration of approximately 10–20 seconds, and its peak ground acceleration was the highest ever instrumentally recorded in an urban area in North America. It feels like forever when it’s happening.  Earthquakes definitely color our perception of time.  They warp the hell out of it. 

When the shaking stopped, we assessed the damage to and in the house (the pantry was a mess, we lost some nice glasses and other fragile objects and the brick fireplace cracked and would need to be repaired before we could sell the house) then went outside to see how all the neighbors were.  That’s where an earthquake becomes not a “me” event but a “we” event.

We all live here because we tolerate quakes.  We all like them on some level deep down even if we won’t admit it.  When the earth actually starts quaking, that means a club meeting’s been called and the last thing you ever want to be is absent from a club meeting.

My family and I were traveling from the east coast back to the west on July 4.  We got stuck in the same nasty weather that delivered some well-deserved righteous indignation on the head of Donald Trump and his psychotic supporters as they re-branded our Independence Day into their Trumpendance Day.  A 4 1/2 hour journey took 37 hours including an overnight stay in Phoenix when we missed the last connection by an hour. 

That meant we missed the initial 6.4 quake that rattled Ridgecrest out in the High Desert.  That meant we missed a club meeting.  Our house sitter went to the meeting in our place.

That would have meant (had an even bigger aftershock not rolled through last night), that we would have been outsiders to any discussion about the quake.  We’d have been no better than East Coasters shuddering about how scary earthquakes are.  But, I’m not sure if we got lucky or we just got “Southern Californian”.  Last night, as we all sat on the front porch of our 1907 craftsman in Highland Park, literally lighting up the first cannabis we’d grown ourselves, that a 7.1 aftershock shoved its way into our front garden gate and asked for a toke.

We all make deals with multiple devils.  My devil is Los Angeles.  Last night, my devil came looking for its due — and I was delighted to pay up.