Ridgecrest: The Earthquakes of a New Generation

A Wake-Up Call for the Young (and Old)

The M6.4 and M7.1 Ridgecrest earthquakes that suddenly awoke Southern California residents from their decade-long “earthquake sleep” on July 4–5, 2019, catapulted millions of residents as far north as Sacramento and as far east as our neighboring states back into the reality of living in earthquake country.

California experiences earthquakes every single day but the last significant earthquake to strike the Golden State took place in a removed part of the Mojave Desert in 1999. Due to its geographic isolation, only four people were slightly injured, as a result, when an Amtrak train derailed near Ludlow, CA. If asked what the most vivid earthquake is in a Southern California resident’s mind (at least until two days ago), most will answer with the M6.7 Northridge Earthquake that threw people out of their beds at 4.31 a.m. on January 17, 1994. The result: Sixty people were killed, more than 7,000 got injured, 20,000 turned homeless and more than 40,000 buildings were damaged in Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange and San Bernardino Counties.

Now, if you’re like me, you weren’t even born then. And if you’re even more like me, you didn’t even live in Los Angeles until a few years ago. What does this mean? You have never experienced a significant earthquake. Worse, you may never have truly thought about what you would do the day the walls would start shaking around you.

A damaged Kaiser Permanente Building after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake

Unlike Gulf and East Coast residents who get warned by officials days in advance when a hurricane is blasting toward them at full speed, earthquake country residents have zero warning. This means, if you’re not prepared the moment the earth starts to shake, your odds of avoiding injury, but perhaps even worse, financial loss, are slim. The truth is, people often associate earthquakes with death much faster than they do with bankruptcy even though they are much likelier to suffer economically than physically.

Now, imagine you just bought a gorgeous new condo in a high-rise in Downtown LA… A lot of LA buildings are built in such a way that they won’t kill you if you’re inside it during an earthquake but they will have so much damage that they will become uninhabitable. So if you don’t own earthquake insurance, it means you just lost your home, your belongings, and your financial investment in your future.

…if you’re not prepared the moment the earth starts to shake, your odds of avoiding injury, but perhaps even worse, financial loss, are slim.

Is there a silver lining to these recent earthquakes? The answer is yes. Unless you are one of the 28,000 Ridgecrest residents who bore the brunt of this, the set of earthquakes can serve as a great reminder for residents (and tourists!) to get prepared… now!

Searles Valley residents may not agree with me right this second, but in a way we are lucky that it wasn’t the Big One that came knocking on our door this week. If it had been, we would be much worse off. Same thing if it had been an earthquake along the Santa Monica of Hollywood faults, which run along much, much more populated areas with dense infrastructure. Since it has been so long since California experienced a significant earthquake, the population is not well prepared. People today spend much more time thinking about what they would do in an active shooter situation than they are preparing for an earthquake. Working as an Emergency Management Training Specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), I am the very first person to support active shooter response training, but one should not preclude the other. This is why every time I begin my training on what to do in active shooter situations, I remind participants that they are much more likely to be involved in an earthquake or a fire during their lifetime than they are of crossing paths with a shooter. You may not find this super reassuring… but at least you have direct control over how well prepared you’ll be in those situations.

People today spend much more time thinking about what they would do in an active shooter situation than they are preparing for an earthquake.

This mindset represents a very common trend in emergency management and disaster psychology and is entirely natural. The more we are faced with a hazard through news media and personal accounts, the more we believe that it is a direct threat to us. So whether you are young or old, given that we have not experienced a significant earthquake in this region in decades, you are likely not as prepared as you should be. But don’t worry, you are not alone and preparing is easier than you would think! Always know that a little preparedness is better than no preparedness, so whatever small thing you get done today or tomorrow, it is a big step in your overall readiness.

What can I do right now to get started with preparing my home? This question begs a response worth multiple articles but here are a few things you can do right now:

  1. Buy earthquake insurance. You are not eligible for reimbursement if furniture gets damaged or your home gets destroyed during an earthquake unless you have earthquake insurance. It can be purchased by renters, homeowners, and small business owners.
  2. Download the ShakeAlertLA app if you are a Los Angeles County resident or worker. This new app introduced by LA City Mayor, Eric Garcetti, in January of this year, in collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey, is the first-ever U.S. earthquake early warning technology. Similar technology has been very successfully used in the past in other countries like Japan and Mexico. Once downloaded on your phone, you will receive a notification if an earthquake is underway that will reach you with a magnitude of 5 or higher (the notification threshold will be up/downgraded to 4.5 soon). Depending on how far you are from the epicenter, this can signify a 2–20+ second window in which you can, for example, find a table to drop under, decide not to step into an elevator, remove your scalpel from someone’s insides if you’re a surgeon or slow down a train if you’re a conductor. Additionally, after the earthquake, the app will also list all the shelters that will be open and accepting people. If you are someone who already has the app on their phone and wondered why it didn’t go off yesterday, the app worked as intended to. Even though the Ridgecrest earthquakes scored higher than 5, their force was lower once they reached LA County.
  3. Select an out-of-state contact (OOSC). When the Big One hits, cell towers will be down and it will be impossible to send texts or call loved ones to check in. Find a relative or friend who lives outside of California, memorize their number and let them know that they are your OOSC so they know to expect your call when they see an earthquake on the news. When the day comes, you and all the family members or friends you live with, will call that individual to let them know you’re all right and to ask if the others are okay. You can communicate with each other this way until the cell system jumps back up or you can reunite in person.
  4. The one thing you can’t live without: water. If you think you have enough, buy more. The rule of thumb is to have one gallon of water per person per day for a minimum of 3 days, though the higher you can go (5 days to 2 weeks), the better. You will need all this water to drink, cook, sanitize, and clean. If you might be okay not showering on day 1 or 2 after the earthquake, you probably will want to on day 3 or 4 at the latest… Don’t forget to include your pet(s) into that equation and to store some water in the trunk of your car.
  5. Review your emergency supplies. If you have an old backpack with supplies from the ’90s, 00’s or 10’s, have a good look inside and see what is still good to use versus not (e.g. leaking flashlight batteries). Even if you don’t have a go kit at home, you are likely to still have supplies at home (e.g. anything camping related) that can be of great use in an emergency. Next time you wish to donate your old pair of running shoes or clothes, hold on to them! To avoid stepping/walking/running in debris: Place a pair of shoes underneath your bed in case the earthquake strikes in the middle of the night, place a pair of shoes in your car in case you are in flip flops at the beach and have to walk back home for hours, and place a pair of shoes in your workplace for the same reason.

Bonus Tip: Start listening to the The Big One: Your Survival Guide. As both a podcast lover and an Emergency Manager, I have never enjoyed a podcast as much as this one. It masterfully mixes storytelling, facts, and preparedness tips. Whether you are earthquake proficient or a novice, this KPCC-produced podcast is a great place to learn in an engaging way.

Screenshots of the ShakeAlertLA App

To finish on a positive note: On his first day in office, Governor Newsom announced executive actions to strengthen California’s preparedness and response, which includes “a proposed $769 million in additional funding to support the state’s wildfire prevention, response and recovery ” and the launch of the California For All Emergency Preparedness Campaign. This $50 million effort “engages local communities on emergency preparedness to support California’s diverse and vulnerable populations, which can be described by social vulnerability factors including social isolation, poverty, language barriers, and other access and functional needs challenges.”

This money will not only do a great deal in reinforcing our infrastructure but it will also improve communities and individuals’ resilience to disasters across the state. Forty-eight hours after the first M6.4 earthquake in Searles Valley, I have already witnessed a spike in sign-ups for the disaster preparedness trainings I teach. Let us build on this and let us not forget. Let’s prepare, one step at a time.

LA-based Emergency Manager | Community Preparedness Trainer & Enthusiast | Host of COVID-19 Heroes Podcast | @LorraineSchnei

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