Earthquake Weather

By Donna Schwartz Mills
© 2001

February 9th was sunny and hot in the Southland. These were the same conditions we experienced 30 years ago when a 6.5 earthquake struck at Sylmar; the kind of unseasonable temperatures some native Californians describe as ‘earthquake weather.’

February went on to become one of the wettest, coldest months in recent memory, resulting in rainfall stats that were higher than Seattle’s… which was hit that month by a quake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale. (I wonder what the weather was like there that morning?)

As damaging as that temblor was, the citizens of Seattle were lucky in that the epicenter was 30 miles below the ground surface, more than twice the depth of the ’94 Northridge quake. They were also very well prepared.

Most of us living on the West Coast have benefited from building codes that help minimize the damage caused by a moderate to strong quake. However, these standards vary between communities and are non-existent in many regions that are also at risk. While earthquakes are most common where the earth’s tectonic plates meet — like along the San Andreas Fault — they can and do occur all over the world. In fact, some of the strongest quakes in the contiguous United States history were in *Missouri* (New Madrid, MO suffered a 7.7 earthquake in 1811 followed by a 7.9 in 1812, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The fact that these occurred nearly 200 years ago does not mean that the area is no longer active; a century is like a nanosecond in geologic time, which looks at events of the course of millions of years.)

According to the National Earthquake Information Center, earthquakes have been felt in just about every region of the United States. While most are minor with little or no damage, every so often one will hit with enough force to topple building walls and chimneys — and that’s when the people inside are most at risk.

My daughter’s pediatrician asked all the usual questions at her last check-up. How is she eating? What is she drawing? Have you taught her what to do in an earthquake?

‘Mommy, what’s an earthquake?’ my daughter asks.

‘That’s when the earth decides to shake a little,’ I tell her, trying to sound calm as I remember that morning seven years ago, when the violence of the shaking moved our queen-sized bed four feet from the wall… with my husband and me still in it. We’ve been extremely lucky in California – many of our significant quakes have occurred so early in the morning that most people are still safe in bed, away from freeways and bridges and falling debris and windows. ‘If you ever feel one while you’re in bed, just put your pillow over your head and stay there,’ I tell her. ‘Stay in bed until Mommy comes to get you.’

As a lifelong Angeleno, I’ve learned a lot from Northridge and Landers and Whittier and Sylmar. We live in a single-story home with nothing heavy hanging on our walls; no cute ceiling ledges with breakable plates or knick-knacks, nothing that could fall on someone’s head if the house starts to shake. It may lack the charm of the Pottery Barn catalog, but at least it’s safe.

Megan’s bed is in the corner of her room, as far away as possible from her window and the closet with the sliding mirrored doors. I remember tales from ’94 of sliding doors that shook off their runners and crashed into rooms. I make a mental note to see what it would take to replace those mirrors with something less shattering. Unfortunately, our 1960’s era house is a veritable hall of mirrors. It makes it seem roomier, but I’m not too sure it’s a good idea here in earthquake country. I shudder at the chances in our own bedroom, which also has the mirrored sliding closet doors and too many windows. I keep a flashlight and a pair of shoes in my nightstand; that way I will be able to get around when the electricity goes out and the floor is covered with shattered glass.

Of course, we should do more. I don’t remember the last time I changed the batteries in that flashlight. The bookcases in the living room are not bolted to the wall (one of them covers one of those mirrors). We should call our Sparkletts man for extra bottles of water to keep on hand (after Northridge, some people were without potable water or power for weeks. I’m told that several of our neighbors carted buckets of water from our pool to flush their toilets).

I show Megan how to duck and cover if the house starts shaking when she’s *not* safe in bed. We go from room to room and pick out spots where she can protect herself from anything falling from the ceiling.

We’re lucky to have bought our home a couple of years after the Northridge quake. We know it’s bolted to the foundation and that our water heater is secure. But we should be doing more.

The American Red Cross suggests that every household keep an emergency preparedness kit both in the home and in each car. This would include:

* First aid kits and essential medications
* Canned food and can openers (with care given to replace food that has expired)
* Bottled Water (at least three gallons per person)
* Protective clothing, rainwear, and bedding or sleeping bags
* Battery-powered radio, flashlight, and extra batteries
* Written instructions for how to turn off gas, electricity, and water if authorities advise you to do so.

Purchase a big plastic garbage can to store your home supplies and stash it in a safe place. Because the banking systems could be down when the power goes out, I’ve also heard suggestions that you keep about $100 in cash somewhere safe within your kit – money may be hard to come by when the ATM machines don’t work. Read the rest of the Red Cross guidelines here.

If your children are in school, there is a good chance that you could be separated should an earthquake strike your community. Anyabaganya sells emergency kits for children, small and light enough to stash in a backpack.

Because local phone service could be out, you should select an out-of-town or out-of-state relative or friend to be a contact person for each member of the family to call.

There are some other resources to help prepare your children for the possibility of an earthquake:

‘Disaster Dog’ – This is a free coloring book for children (in PDF format), from the good folks at the American Red Cross.

‘Wee Ones’ Issue #3 – This children’s online magazine features a very good article about earthquakes and even attempts to show the kids what a quake would be like by shaking your screen:

Learn2 Prepare for an Earthquake: This ‘2torial’ from online learning center was revised in March following the Seattle quake. It’s simple and to the point.

February 9, 1971 – Sylmar woke us up at 6:00 a.m. My bed in the room I shared with my sister was right next to the wall, which I cowered against until the shaking stopped. In the meantime, my sister was holding onto our great-grandmother’s antique lamp, which rested on the nightstand between us. It still has a place of honor on my nightstand and I’m grateful to Linda for saving it.

There was no school that day, so we spent the morning talking with our neighbors and watching TV. Again, we were lucky — we had been set to move the following day and almost everything we owned had been safely packed into boxes. Some of our neighbors were not so fortunate, and suffered extensive damage to their homes and furnishings. That afternoon, a crack was discovered in a dam in the hills above our neighborhood; we were told to evacuate the area until the water could be pumped safely out of the reservoir and repairs could be made.

It was a week before we returned home and back to school. The weather had been in the 80-degree range that February and for many of us kids, it had been an extra vacation, with tales of adventure in emergency shelters (or like us, with relatives who lived outside the evacuation zone). Sylmar was my first earthquake and once the shaking had stopped, I thought it had been fun. Even the aftershocks — which lasted for over a year — added some excitement to our days. That’s youth for you; like most young people, I had no sense of mortality.

I grew up in ’94. Those of my friends who were also around for Sylmar agreed that this quake was a whole different animal, with the most violent shaking we had ever experienced. Driving around the L.A. area and seeing the extent of the damage was heartbreaking; no neighborhood was spared.

Both the Northridge and Sylmar quakes registered 6.7 on the Richter scale; the long-awaited ‘Big One’ could be 10 times stronger (or more). I am truly terrified, but not about to show it to my daughter.

Earthquakes happen and we cannot predict or control them. But by being prepared, we can at least affect our chances and our children’s chances of getting out safely… in any kind of weather.

Donna Schwartz Mills is married to a geologist, who goes on a rant whenever anyone mentions ‘earthquake weather.’ Donna is the Webmaster Mommy of, a new resource for moms in Southern California. She is also the work-at-home expert behind the ParentPreneur Club … and recently edited ‘Baby Tips for New Parents,’ a free eBook.

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