“You can run, but you can’t hide...”
“Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” 1981
This might have been “Shark Week” as far as Discovery Channel was concerned, but in LA, it officially turned into “Quake Week” at 11:42 Tuesday morning. As earthquakes go, this one wasn’t much -- at 5.4 on the Richter scale, releasing far less energy than previous quakes in Southern California’s recent memory.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t utterly terrifying to those unlucky people near the epicenter. When an earthquake hits, there’s no way of knowing how big and bad it’s going to be. All you know is that everything you’ve always assumed was real in your world: the physical integrity of wood, cement, and steel – and the very concept “solid ground” itself – is suddenly, shockingly upended. When the ground beneath your feet turns to jello, when the street under your car ripples in liquid waves like a sheet in the wind, or when a plate glass window five feet from your head flexes in and out as though made of rubber, you’ve entered the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the earthquake. Only gravity remains constant, enforcing the ancient mandate that what goes up will indeed come down. A lot what went up did so a long time ago, in the form of bricks, mortar, and glass – and when that comes down, things get ugly fast.
An earthquake is a nightmare come to life with no warning at all. One moment, the world is its normal, troublesome/wonderful place, and the next, all hell is breaking loose. In the meantime, there’s not a damned thing you can do but hang on, ride it out, and hope for the best. And then -- just as suddenly as it came -- it’s over. The ground returns to a familiar state of terra firma, the street becomes as hard and unyielding as stone, and a window is once again something to look through, rather than at. The experience is as surreal as it is scary -- the sense of vulnerability engendered by even a relatively modest quake can be overwhelming. That feeling lingers, too. You don’t soon forget an earthquake.
I missed this one, having fled The Doomed City for a brief return to my home planet, but the images in newspapers and on television evoked vivid memories. I had the good fortune to grow up during a quiet period in California’s tectonic history. Minor temblors rumbled through every now and then, but never anything strong enough to do more than rattle the dishes. As kids, we thought earthquakes were fun. Stories of the great earthquake that nearly destroyed San Francisco in 1906 appeared in newspapers every year around the anniversary of that seminal event, but they were just that – stories from the past. In my naïve and youthful innocence, I thought I knew all about earthquakes.
I didn’t know shit.
The first quake to impact my consciousness hit Alaska in 1964, a ground-ripping monster that pegged the Richter scale at 8.4, shaking for a full five minutes. At one point, the meter hit 9.2 – an unimaginably huge earthquake. Alaska’s population was very small at the time, but this quake still managed to kill 130 people, including those who died when a 27 foot tsunami swept into Prince William Sound and smashed through their village.
Alaska was a long way away, though, and with television news technology still primitive, photo/video coverage of the quake was minimal. The pictures in “Life Magazine” a week later were horrifying enough, but in the turbulent 60’s, shocking events seemed to happen with metronomic regularity. News of the huge earthquake in the north quickly faded into the high level of background static. Down in the lower 48, we had other things to worry about.
Then came the Sylmar quake, which struck Los Angeles at 6:00 in the morning of February 9, 1971. As a college student in Santa Cruz at the time, all I knew about LA was the Dodgers (boo...), Disneyland, and the harbor at San Pedro, where my dad and I embarked on a three day scuba diving trip a few years before. I’d never even heard of the San Fernando Valley, just north of LA, which suffered the brunt of the damage: 65 people killed, two hospitals destroyed, and a couple of freeway interchanges brought down. Many of my friends in school had families living in the Valley, and were thoroughly freaked out by the stories they heard. It was “only” a 6.6 quake – miniscule compared to the Alaska or 1906 San Francisco quakes – but the resulting damage gave me an inkling how serious an urban earthquake could really be. Earthquakes weren’t “fun” anymore.
Still, that one happened in Los Angeles, far from Santa Cruz. I’d yet to personally experience the eye-opening terror of a real earthquake -- a state of blissful ignorance that ended October 1, 1987, at 7:42 a.m. I’d fallen into bed only an hour before, after working a brutally long day and night on a Miller beer commercial in a disgusting little South Bay bar. The place seemed okay when we started the job, but 25 hours later, the reek of spilled, sour beer (and 25 hours of endlessly repetitive commercial idiocy) transformed it into the Pit from Hell. LA was in the grip of a typical October heat wave, accompanied by the Santa Ana’s – hot, dry winds that howl in from the desert to turn LA into a giant convection oven. The day was already heating up as I drove home at 6:00 in the morning, sweaty, filthy, and tired beyond belief. Ordinarily, I’d take a shower as soon as I got home from work – especially after a job like that – but I was just too tired. Still sweaty and stinking, I fell face-first onto my bed.
It seemed like I’d only been out for a minute when a deafening rumble shook the bed like a rat in the jaws of a terrier. Too tired and confused to be scared, I stumbled from bed and rode it out hanging on to the door jamb as my apartment bucked and shuddered. Then it was over, with nothing but the sound of barking dogs and a thousand car alarms wailing in the distance.
So much for sleep. I lost nothing more than a few dishes, but although the Whittier Narrows quake wasn’t all that big – a 5.9 that killed three people – I’d now felt the power of an earthquake first-hand.
It wasn’t a good feeling.
Two years later, I was sitting in the same apartment on the phone with a cute make-up artist who was working on a feature in Florida (a young lady I pursued with romantic – and sadly, unrequited - intent), when she suddenly became upset.
“There’s been a 15 minute earthquake in San Francisco!” she blurted, then hung up.
I turned on the TV and saw a chunk of the Bay Bridge gone.
Fortunately, she’d got it wrong – the 6.9 quake lasted for 15 seconds, not 15 minutes – but that was long enough to kill sixty-three people, and inflict horrendous physical damage all around the Bay Area. The Loma Prieta quake was centered near the beautiful little town of Santa Cruz, my old college stomping grounds, which lost some of its most historic buildings downtown. Nobody I knew was hurt, but two nasty quakes in two years meant it was no longer possible to ignore the uneasy reality under my feet.
Seven years later, another rough lesson was delivered from below in the pre-dawn cold and dark of January 17, 1994, as the ground began to shake with an intensity that hit 6.7 on the Richter scale. Centered a few miles away in the Valley, the Northridge quake jerked me from a sound sleep into a state of full adrenal panic. I knew what was happening, but the dream-addled image in my mind had me trapped in a shoe box being shaken by some malevolent giant.
As soon as the first shock subsided, I staggered from bed and jumped into some clothes. There wasn’t much visible damage to my apartment, but the power was off – the whole city gone dark. Car alarms blared for a few minutes, then all was quiet. A few minutes later, sirens began to rise and fall in the distance. I waited, flashlight in hand, as an aftershock rocked the building again. It was too dark to see outside, but that wasn’t all bad: in the pitch blackness, it was evident that no fires had broken out my neighborhood. I tried my battery-powered radio, but there was only silence. Sitting there in the dark, waiting for the sun to rise, I felt a sudden kinship for my primitive ancestors – like them, I was just another puny human huddling in his cave, afraid The Monster outside might return. That got old after a while, so I started washing the dirty dishes in the sink by candlelight. It seems absurd in retrospect, but so long as I had hot water, I might as well put it to good use. If nothing else, it was something semi-useful to do while waiting for the sun to rise, and reveal how bad things really were.
Bad enough, as it turned out. As I washed those dishes, people were dying over in the Valley – seventy-two in all - suffering horrific, violent death simply for being in the wrong place at the worst possible time. Earthquakes are fickle killers.
At the time, I had no way of knowing any of this. I was still wondering if any more quakes were on the way – maybe what we’d experienced thus far was only the warm-up for the long-dreaded Big One. Aftershocks kept rocking the building, rattling the dishes as well as my nerves. Then the radio crackled to life – one of the local NPR stations was finally on the air, broadcasting what little was known.
I was lucky. My building stayed up, with the only obvious damage a big pile of bricks that had been a fireplace and chimney a few minutes before. The dawn brought electricity back to to my area, and I watched the television news reports from disaster sites all over the city. One helicopter shot showed a big three story apartment, still upright, but now only two stories tall. The first floor, and all those people who lived there, were dead or trapped underneath. Another shot from the air revealed a street flooded with water erupting in huge sheets of flame as gas leaked from broken pipes below ground – fire and water all at once, like something out of the Old Testament.
The quake hit early enough that most Industry people weren’t yet on the job. A few were, though, one a set-dresser (friend of a friend) who was working on a show at Warner Brothers. Up on a ladder when the shaking started, he reported making a rapid, gravity-assisted descent, then running for his life as the set walls followed him down, like an “Indiana Jones” stunt come to life. He barely made it out in one piece. In a post on his blog here, Nat Bocking tells a good story w/photos (“ a picaresque tale,” in his own words) detailing his experiences coping with the quake’s aftermath that morning, then reporting for work as a prop man on “Full House” at Warners, where the stage’s fire sprinkler system had soaked the entire set with thousands of gallons of water.
Tuesday’s quake in LA was nothing like that. It was only taste, reminding us all of the tectonic Sword of Damocles under which we live here on the West Coast. LA, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle are all built on geologically unstable ground. According to geologists, California faces a 99.7% chance of a major quake sometime during the next thirty years in LA or the San Francisco Bay Area – or both. Those are steep odds. After seeing the toll of death and destruction in China’s recent devastating quake, the thought of what we’ll face when a major quake hits our urban areas is sobering.
I could always move to Kansas, I suppose, but that would be leaping from the frying pan of earthquakes into the fire of tornadoes, in a land as flat and featureless as a billiard table. No offense to Kansans, but I was born here in the rolling hills of earthquake country, and here’s where I’ll stay, for better or worse. There’s no escape, really -- wherever you go, some sort of cosmic sledgehammer awaits, cocked and ready to smash your world to bits.
As I type these words, I’m looking out at miles of bucolic pastoral beauty, four hundred long miles from Los Angeles. On a day like today, sunny and clear, it feels a lot like paradise -- but a serpent lurks in every Eden. Down at the bottom of the hill lies narrow sliver of water marking the San Andreas Fault – the very same fault that leveled San Francisco a hundred years ago, and which (according to the experts) is once again loaded for bear and ready to rumble. The tectonic clock is ticking, our date with earth-shaking destiny one step closer every day.
No wonder I don’t sleep easy anymore.
Enough of this grim stuff. For a much lighter view from The Onion on the effect The Big One will have on LA, click here