The Great California Shake Out, and the World Series Quake... 20 years later

There's a lot going on the online geo-world tomorrow. It's Blog Action Day, and the subject is Climate Change. It's Earth Science Week's first Women in Geoscience day. And, at 10:15 am Pacific time, it's California's second annual earthquake drill - the Shake Out.

I don't live in California, but I might crawl under my desk tomorrow morning just to be part of the action. Because there's a big anniversary coming up on Saturday, and I'll be busy in Portland, Oregon, without the time to post.

At 5 pm on Tuesday, October 17, 1989, I was just settling down to do my Chinese homework. (Yes, I had been procrastinating.) I had been living in California for three weeks, in a frat-house-turned-hippy-co-op, just getting started in grad school. I knew how close the fault was, and that the building where I lived had been built just a few years after 1906. But geologic time is long, and human time is short, and even a geology grad student can find it difficult to imagine tectonic and human time converging.

It began with a rattling, like a big truck driving by. I was excited. Then it started shaking more, and I considered crawling under my rather flimsy desk. But then the desk started moving across the floor, so I moved into the doorway. (Not a good idea, by the way. Doors can swing.) But by the time I got there, I could barely stand. So I sat, wedged into the door, back on one side and feet pressed against the other, screaming "is this an earthquake?" until, with the sound of breaking glass, it stopped.

We didn't know where the epicenter had been, or how large of an area had been affected. Radio news said the Bay Bridge had collapsed, and the Marina District was on fire, and the aqueduct from Hetch Hetchy had broken, and something had happened in Berkeley. (The Hetch Hetchy and Berkeley rumors turned out to be false.) We thought that Stanford had gotten off easily - yeah, the chimney on one of the houses had collapsed, and there was plaster everywhere on the floor of our house, and the brick foundation was buckled in odd ways, but everything else was standing, even the Old Quad that had been damaged so much in 1906. Compared to areas to the south, we had gotten off easily - the Santa Cruz Garden Mall had collapsed (as Gillian Welch reminds me) - but we were hit badly enough. The next day, the structural engineers put yellow warning tape around our house. I don't remember when they let us in for long enough to get a change of clothes. I probably snuck in. I remember being allowed in for 10 minutes to fill some garbage bags with stuff, and then not having any place to store it. (I didn't have a car.) After around a week, a group of us found a house to rent in Palo Alto. I couldn't get my mail forwarded to there - the US Postal Service doesn't forward from campus addresses. I cried and yelled at the people sorting the mail.

We were fortunate that most of the nearby buildings weren't damaged. We were able to get food from the dorms. The city water still flowed. There were places around for rent. Nobody that I knew was hurt, so we didn't need medical supplies.

After the earthquake, Stanford buried supplies around campus. (I wonder if anyone knows where they are buried now, 20 years later?) For years, even in Vermont, I wouldn't put shelves near a bed. (Never figured out a good way to keep my glasses from flying across the room in a quake, though.)

I don't live near the plate boundary any more. Earthquakes can happen in Colorado, it's true, but they aren't as likely as in California. But tomorrow morning, I'm going to remember what it was like. You can, too.

I promise not to scream this time.

And just when you thought there was going to be a post that doesn't mention Donors Choose... two of our projects deal with earthquakes. Earthquakes in the Bronx only needs $138 more to get drafting compasses and and earthquake video, and Shake, Rattle, and Measure is looking for earthquakes and volcanoes materials for a classroom in Arkansas. No, these kids aren't in California... but who knows where they will live when they grow up. And earthquakes and volcanoes are good hooks to catch the interest of kids anywhere.

More like this

Along with the stories of tragedy in Italy, there are also stories that the earthquake was predicted, and that the predictions were ignored. Was the tragedy made even worse by authorities who wouldn't listen to a scientist who knew what he was talking about? Now, I'm not a seismologist, but I know…
This month's Scientiae is about overcoming challenges: our worst moments, and how we survived them. I've had trouble deciding which story to tell. Field camp? Running out of food while dropped off by helicopter? Not finding the rocks that were supposed to be in my dissertation field area? Bad dates…
A 6.3 earthquake has just struck the city of Christchurch, New Zealand, killing dozens and leaving dozens more buried in rubble with rescue workers trying to dig them out. On the TV this morning, the mayor of Christchurch told his story: Having just left a series of meetings, he was sitting on a…
The Great San Francisco Earthquake(s) On October 8th, 1865, the "Great San Francisco Earthquake" hit south of the city of San Francisco, magnitude 6.3. On October 21st, 1868, the 'Great San Francisco Earthquake" hit near Haywards, east of the city, across the bay, magnitude 6.8. On April 18th, 1906…

The Loma Prieta quake brought people together, too. For a while. Perhaps some day, you could talk about that part of it a little more.

... and Shake, Rattle, and Measure is looking for earthquakes and volcanoes materials for a classroom in Arkansas. No, these kids aren't in California...

The New Madrid Sesmic Zone does stray into northeastern Arkansas.

I was also in graduate school at Stanford 20 years ago on October 17. Three weeks earlier, I had moved there from downtown Santa Cruz... It was very sad.

Now I'm back in Santa Cruz, which has largely recovered from the trauma.

Thanks for the thoughts.

By mollyrogers (not verified) on 15 Oct 2009 #permalink

This is a long post. It is (some of) my personal experience from the Northridge Quake of 1994, and my lessons learned as a consequence. I think the timing is right, and I hope those lessons can be of help to others. Somehow the public service announcements do not convey as much, nor convince as much, as experience.

I used to live in Woodland Hills, in the San Fernando Valley. I had a nice little SFV bungalow. In the summer of 1993 we began plans to move the entire company (22 families) to Seattle, departure date Feb 3 1004. Everybody else loved around Redondo Beach, in the S part of LA.

The early morning of January 17, 1994 arrives. I am sitting in the hotel room of a client, bug fixing his app. At 4:20 am I reach for the Enter key to commit the final bug fix change. I never got there. Instead, the keyboard flew up from the table and smacked me in the face. A moment later the power went out and we bounced around the room until it was over. quite helpless to protect ourselves.

I have heard the quake rocked and rolled for 45 seconds. It felt like 5 minutes, minimum. I have also heard that it sported some unusual features. The Valley shares some features with waveguides. It is long, almost constant width, with 3000' rocky walls down each side. The quake itself was about 3 miles from my home, not that deep, and comprised two shocks 7 seconds apart. The result was some unusually intense constructive and destructive interference patterns, with a wavelength of about 150 ft. Also resulted in accelerometer measurements in excess of 2g along all three axes. So things get kicked up into the air, the building moves under them, and then they come down somewhere else. Or hit the wall first. We had things end up on the opposite side of the house. The wavelength of the interference led to the strange result that typically every other house was untouched, and were separated from each other by piles of kindling that used to be their neighbors. Mine was not quite kindling, but it was my neighbors that were OK.

After the movement stopped I did a very stupid thing: I jumped into my car and drove home, past natural gas leaks and over a freeway bridge. In the dark. No streetlights. Pure luck that I am still here to tell the tale. I am not sure what to recommend in this situation. Clearly I exposed myself to great danger, all unwittingly. I could have walked, if I waited for daylight, but I felt a pressing need to be home.

My wife was bruised but otherwise un-injured. She ended up under the closet contents.

In the case of my house, it bounced up and down so fast many of the new concrete roofing tiles snapped. The front doors, which had long sliding bolts top and bottom that extended 2" into the door frame, popped open. The patio window assembly, including both fixed and sliding door, popped out of its frame. The chimney stack, top half, walked. The chimney did not become apparent until much later. The swimming pool broke in two pieces and rose out of the ground.

Everything not bolted to the floor or wall in every room had been shuffled into a heap in the middle of its respective space. All my pottery was destroyed. My music studio was unrecognizable. My carefully sorted and shelved collection of some 400 SciFi Club books and nearly 20 years worth of Analog and Astounding and Asimov's magazines was randomly shuffled into piles on the floor.

For a while we heard very strange noises from the computer room during every aftershock, until we dug down deep enough to discover it was a Yamaha music keyboard. Its power switch had been turned on by collision with some books, which were then lying against the drum pads. The rest of the library was a 4' mound above the keyboard. Note that a typical aftershock then was in its own right a respectable earthquake of 5.5+ magnitude. You could hear them coming down the valley via the noise the bouncing rooftops made. I also discovered the lizard back-brain does not. like. earthquakes. one. bit.

And two weeks later we were scheduled to move to Seattle and put the house on the market.

Three months earlier, my wife (unbeknownst to me) had been persuaded by an insurance agent that their policy was the same as our current policy but $200 less. Not the same. The difference was: in our original policy rebuild was unlimited, but the new one was limited to estimated cost of materials as of 8 years earlier.

The other thing that gets little mention is how these disasters bring the worst of the feeding frenzy in the contractors' market, affecting even the most established reputations. Everything took longer than if it were an isolated repair. And cost more. And not up to proper standards or to specifications. My wife had to stay back for nearly 2 years to ride herd on the contractors to make sure everything was done as it should be and to put the house up for sale afterwards. Every day she found some other infraction. I, as a key employee and founder, had no choice but to move N. so she was on her own.

So some things you should look out for.

1: Any gas fired appliances should be strapped to the wall frames (NOT just to the sheet rock) Gas hot water heaters were common ion the Valley. They walked during the quake and snapped off their gas hoses. Three days later when the power came back on, the houses were full of gas and exploded. Most of them were fortunately empty because when the heaters walked they also snapped off their water pipes and the houses were flooded and so evacuated. We were lucky with this one.

2: priority #1 after a quake: know where your stop cocks are for gas, and where your master power switch is, and where your water feed tap is, and TURN THEM ALL OFF. Expect to do this in the dark, no power, lots of trash and other obstructions in the way, and possibly even covering up the taps and switches. I cannot stress enough that this is your number one task, assuming you can get to them. If you can't, well, your house is toast anyway. So get to your #2 task which is everybody's safety. Do NOT turn them back on again until every inch of your property has been inspected. Make sure nobody is in the house when you do turn them back on. Do that one at a time and inspect carefully before turning on the next one. Water first, then gas, then power.

3: emergency supplies. We were in a major metropolitan area. We were without electricity for 3 days, gas for 1 week, and water for 10 days. No power means no refrigerated food. No water means no flushing toilets. We could not get to our swimming pool, what was left of its contents, for 3 days because it had electrically operated covers that were closed at the time. Keep your supplies outside, preferable at the back of your yard. Not in the garage. Needless to say, everything there was piled up on the floor too. My motorcycle took a short trip all on its very own. Did not get to the back wall for a good two weeks.

4: communications. The telco lines typically are the most resistant to problems. Have a classic phone that needs no separate power available as well as a cell phone for emergency calls and outage notifications. Have a solar charger for the cellphone.

Be Prepared. Quakes, forest fires, windstorms and above ground power line distribution. There are many source of disaster.

So now we have a 7KW tri-fuel generator feeding fridge, freezer, microwave. And 250 gallon Propane tank feeding space heater and generator, and estimated 14 day 24/7 supply, mounted outside away from the house. Maybe not so many earthquakes out here, but power is often out, sometimes for up to a week. We are very sensitive to these things now. And the generator has been used, several times, and saved our butts from unwanted discomforts.

By Gray Gaffer (not verified) on 15 Oct 2009 #permalink