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Earthquake! (But not the Big One)


It was only a sharp, short jolt, lasting less than a second, but my body recognized it as an earthquake. The only way to tell if it was small and nearby, or bigger but far away, was to go to the U.S.G.S. website’s earthquake page.

There, I found out it had been a 4.0 (a pretty good little shaker) in Morgan Hill, 60 miles south of Oakland, at 6:59 a.m. this morning. I knew exactly which fault had ruptured: the San Andreas.

A 4.0 earthquake isn’t going to kill anyone or even cause much if any damage. It’s just the fault stretching its muscles, so to speak. But whenever these things happen here in California, they remind us that we live in earthquake country, and the Big One is never far from our minds.

When I first moved to California in 1978 I couldn’t wait to feel my first quake. It didn’t take long, just a few months. But it took 1989’s Loma Prieta to turn my excitement into terror. I was writing for the Oakland Tribune newspaper, doing local feature stories. On that particular afternoon, at 5:04 p.m. on Oct. 17, I was on the phone, interviewing a dad whose daughter had won some kind of kite-flying contest. (Okay, not the most compelling news story, but it paid the bills!) That’s when I felt the first shake.

“We’re getting a little earthquake,” I told the dad. He was in Walnut Creek, 16 miles to the northeast.

“Not feeling anything here,” he replied.

“It’s not so little!” I said, as the shaking increased in intensity.

“I’m feeling it now.”

When the shaking turned really violent, I said, “I have to go now,” and hung up. That’s when all hell broke loose. Pictures tumbled off the wall, wine glasses shattered on the floor, the whole building was rocking and rolling. I went to take cover under a doorway, but by the time I got there, it was all over; the Loma Prieta Earthquake had lasted only 15 seconds.

I caught my breath and ran to my next door neighbor’s place. Knocked on the door, and Robert answered. A cloud of marijuana smoke drifted out.

“Was that the Big One?” My eyes must have been as wide as saucers.

There was no electric power—it had been knocked out. But Robert had a little four-inch battery-powered T.V. We turned it on and found a local San Francisco news station that was operating on generator. The first reports said the Bay Bridge had collapsed. All Robert and I could do was look at each other in horror. As reports continued to come in, we learned that the 980 freeway, the so-called Cypress Structure, also had collapsed, its upper deck pancaking onto the lower. This had all happened at the height of rush hour.

As things turned out, the Bay Bridge hadn’t collapsed. A section of the upper bridge had fallen onto the lower level; one person was killed. But the Cypress Structure really had collapsed along a length of 1-1/2 miles. It was eerie; I’d been on the Bay Bridge that morning, and on the Cypress Structure only hours before the earthquake. Casualties would have been far higher had not the Oakland A’s been playing the San Francisco Giants in the World Series at Candlestick Park; most workers had gone home early, to watch the game. The freeways were largely deserted.

Loma Prieta was “the Big One” of our modern era, but it surely wasn’t the Big One seismologists fear. Loma Prieta was officially pegged at magnitude 6.9, which actually is short of a “major earthquake” as classified by authorities. The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake by contrast was 7.9 magnitude. Had Loma Prieta been that big the damage and casualties would have been enormous. But seismologists tell us that an earthquake around that big is inevitable and may even be overdue.

We’re all supposed to have our earthquake kits ready: food, water, first aid supplies, battery-powered radio, etc. I confess I do not. I sometimes fantasize what the Big One will be like. The experts tell us not to expect any help from the outside for days, as road and bridges will be impassable. I do have a lot of bottled water in the fridge, but not canned food. I once stocked up a ton of canned food, but over time I ended up eating it. Since I live in a building with lots of neighbors, I assume we’ll all share what we have and take care of each other. I may be overly-trusting.

By the time I finished typing these words, I returned to the U.S.G.S. website and found they’d lowered the magnitude from 4.0 to 3.7. That’s not unusual. It is a little unusual for a 3.7 to have been felt in Oakland, but the earthquake was very shallow, only 3-1/2 miles deep. That explains why I felt it 60 miles away. Had the quake been 20 miles deep, I probably would not even have noticed. But people in Morgan Hill certainly felt it. Within minutes #earthquake was trending on Twitter.

Never a dull moment in California! But at least we don’t have hurricanes or tornadoes.  

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