Wednesday, January 7, 2009


It began with a bang and ended in a series of distressing whimpers.

The Russians had finally bombed Los Angeles. It was not so much as a deafening boom, but a long tympani roll that gained power, then curled off to the distance in a series of decrescendos. The official report reads like this:

The 1971 San Fernando earthquake (also known as Sylmar earthquake) struck the San Fernando Valley near Sylmar at 6:00:55 a.m. PST on February 9, 1971, with a magnitude of 6.6.

Six-point-six...hardly worth a bother in the arcana of bad hands dealt humankind by our living planet. There have been stronger earthquakes in the Valley's history. The Northridge Quake in 1994 registered 6.7. It damaged my family's home, weakening walls and destroying joists, and my parents were forced to move into an apartment for months while repairs were completed.

But in the dark on this day, in my first semester of college, two minutes before my alarm clock would have gone off--except that there now would be no electricity or water for two weeks--I was lifted from bed, tossed like yesterday's pair of socks against the opposing wall, and then the bookcase fell down on me, raining a small stack of volumes, then more and more like an argument against illiteracy.

The roar had not abated when I crawled across the darkened room to the closet door, cutting my kneecaps on a mosaic of debris. Isn't that what the atomic disaster drill said: crawl to a small space without windows and sit patiently for your skin to melt.

As I sat in the closet, arms braced against the jambs for the inevitable end, you could hear the groaning of the earth as it rolled, the creaking of beams in the ceiling--hundred-pound monsters that could come down on you--glass shattering in the kitchen as cabinet doors opened and dishes cascaded to the floor, and members of my family, in their darkened rooms amidst whatever was truly happening and what their senses led them to believe was going down, screams of "Oh, God, let it stop."

The rolling stopped, along with the loud cry of the earth, and then we made our way in the dark to the front door, stepped out into the morning light that was beginning to rise up over the San Gabriel Mountains. My mother sat on the front step and fished for a cigarette. My father walked to the end of the driveway and, seeing little evidence of why any of this had happened, came back and shrugged. Up and down Gaviota Avenue people came out of their homes in their pajamas and bathrobes, hair disheveled, faces ashen and grim. Dogs, cut loose when the masonry walls of the neighborhood came down, raced up and down the avenue in packs, barking madly, tongues streaming from gritted jowls, their eyes fierce and searching.

The earthquake ruptured a segment of the San Fernando fault zone, a set of north-dipping, high-angled reverse faults along the southeastern margin of the San Gabriel Mountains. It caused more than 10 miles of discontinuous surface ruptures with average displacements of about 3 feet both horizontally and vertically. A strong aftershock sequence followed the main shock and included four quakes in the Magnitude 5 range. The quake claimed 65 lives and caused more than half a billion dollars in damage, including the destruction of two hospitals, two freeway interchanges and the Lower Van Norman Dam. Damage to the dam caused concern that the dam, of the earthen bulwark type, might collapse, in whole or in part. Much confusion ensued as various agencies declared a need for the mandatory evacuation of 40,000 people, or voluntary evacuations of various portions of the San Fernando Valley below the dam. This depended on which agency was consulted, and often the evacuees were not able to be informed of the status of an evacuation in a timely manner, often returning home just as the police arrived to notify them of a new evacuation order, or evacuating at a moment when officials decided not to evacuate. Communication was made difficult by disruption of telephone, water, and electrical service.

Twenty minutes, a half hour after the quake, we had our first aftershock where we stood in the driveway waiting for the sun to warm us up. I was sitting on the hood of my dad's Dodge and it fell beneath me, then bounced back up, and kept bouncing for half a minute. There would be two week's of these, spacing themselves out, diminishing in strength, but their unpredictable intrusions at all hours made sleep nearly impossible. With each, you experienced the trauma of the first blow that morning.

It took a while for the police to send a motorcycle down Gaviota. The officer spoke into his handset as he drove along slowly, advising us to get in our cars and drive south--preferably out of the San Fernando Valley entirely. By now it was fully light and people went back into their shattered homes to gather their belongings. If the quake had lasted two seconds longer, there would have been no motorcycle; there would have been the thunder of waves, then silence.

It was hard to think of leaving in such a hurry, but we were terrified of the consequences of remaining. There was no power in the house; it was strewn with wreckage; and somehow water from the backyard swimming pool ended up in the living room.

There have been stronger earthquakes in the Valley's history. The Northridge Quake in 1994 registered 6.7. It damaged my family's home, weakening walls and destroying joists, and they had to move into an apartment for months while repairs were completed.

But this was our first quake, and as we found flashlights and searched for essentials to pack into the car. The second of the four-successive 5.0 aftershocks rocked us again and as we dropped our lights, we were plunged into darkness again.

I was in my first semester of college, so it was important to me to pack my books, in addition to my toiletries and a few days' change of clothes. My parents and siblings packed their own satchels.

Moments later we walked back into the sunlight and put our belongings in the trunk of the Dodge. As we backed out of the drive, you could see everyone in the neighborhood--up and down Gaviota--lugging their essentials to their cars. Apparently I was the only one taking books. People carried huge televisions, armloads of rifles, cargo boxes the size of pirate's chests, skiis, power tools.... It astonished me how many of my neighbors owned rifles.

Even as rescue and firefighting efforts continued, police arrested three looters in Newhall and reported others stealing form quake-damaged stores in the desert community and sporadic looting at shops along Hollywood Boulevard.

The giant tremor swayed Los Angeles' new forest of high-rise buildings. Jutting Occidental Towers three-building complex has been closed as building crews check for structural damage.

Olvera Street, a picturesque tourist attraction adjacent to the Plaza in the heart of old Los Angeles, is a shambles of collapsed stalls and strewn merchandise.

The quake was so intense it briefly knocked out some voice communications at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, according to a spokesman. The agency said that it lost telephone contact with the Long Beach control tower.

Buildings swayed and cracked from Los Angeles west to Santa Monica, northeast to Hollywood and Burbank, then throughout the San Fernando valley and the Saugus-Newhall area.

Up the street we drove, along the shops on Devonshire where looters had already found the shattered windows on supermarkets and drug stores and were racing out with armloads of food, radios, appliances, whatever they deemed valuable and entitled to steal. People on street corners sold huge jugs of water at insane prices.

That night we tried to sleep without success at my cousin's home at the farthest end of the valley from the damaged reservoir. The morning paper ran a photograph of a small pickup truck that had been crushed when a freeway overpass dropped on it, killing the two occupants. Nine people died in their beds at local hospitals when the walls collapsed. Statues toppled off their bases and three-hundred-year-old adobe walls crumbled at the Mission San Fernando.

Once, during the week, I was allowed back into my home with police escort, to recover my asthma medication, and walked the dim halls strewn with wreckage. In the middle of the afternoon, the house shuddered under the lash of another aftershock and I braced against the walls as they wobbled.

My world had been rocked off its foundation by the power of the earth, the stupidity of its petty residents, and the end of what had been a magical suburban existence just miles from the where they filmed the television shows that portrayed simple, funny, and normal families residing in tidy homes on clean, orderly lanes lined with palm trees and manicured lawns.

1 comment:

tangobaby said...

This is truly terrifying. In my mind, I keep picturing the people fleeing town ala War of the Worlds. We get so blase about earthquakes here, or at least I do. Your story is a real wake up call to not take things for granted.

I was briefly reminded of my quake, the '89 quake, but it was not even close to what you experienced here. I'm not sure if I would have ever recovered like you have.

It was especially interesting about your observations of what possessions people were taking: you with the books and the others with their tvs and rifles. Somehow I think that same scenario would play out just the same way today. And lastly, how were those people expecting to watch television anyway. (don't get me started on my television rant, this is YOUR blog.)

This reads like a Steven King story. It's scarier because it's real. Whew, I have to walk this one off.