Many of you have never experienced a major earthquake and I thought it might be a good idea to share a few of my earthquake stories. I experienced my first earthquake when I was about 6 years old while eating pancakes at Ky’s Place in Carson City, Nevada. As I remember it, the table started shaking a bit at first and I didn’t understand what was happening. I could see ripples in my water glass, which graduated to little waves sloshing over the rim as the intensity picked up. Silverware was rattling all over the diner. It lasted for maybe 10-15 seconds and felt kind of like those Magic Fingers beds that vibrated when you put 50 cents in them you’d find in those old time motels. That earthquake was about a 5.5 on the Richter Scale. I actually thought it was fun and when my mom told me it was an earthquake, I couldn’t wait for my next one!

I got my wish a few years later in 1971 with the Sylmar earthquake, which measured 6.6 – about 30 times more powerful than the one I experienced in Carson City. This one struck around 7am and lasted 12 seconds. I remember awakening to my bed shaking pretty violently. In my youth-addled groggy state, I thought a burglar was under my bed shaking it. My mom and sisters yelled out to me from their bedrooms to get under a doorway (that was the conventional wisdom at the time). By the time I got to it, the quake had stopped. We experienced a lot of broken plates and glass and some cracks in the ceiling, but thankfully not much else.

However, one of my sisters did experience some emotional damage. She was completely freaked out by the experience and became hysterical, alternating between crying and talking a mile a minute about completely random and unrelated things. Finally, my mom gave her a good slap to try and break the cycle and bring her back to reality. It was a scene right out of Airplane!

The next big one for me was our last decent sized earthquake in L.A. – the 6.7 Northridge quake in 1994. By then, I was living in a beautiful 1922 craftsman home in the West Adams section of Los Angeles, about 26 miles from the epicenter. It hit at 4:33am and lasted around 15-20 seconds, but I have to tell you it seemed like an eternity. You have no idea how long 20 seconds can be or how so much can happen in such a short time.

It started slowly, with a rumble and vibrating. In retrospect, that probably lasted 5-7 seconds. I was wide awake at this point and knew what was going on. The first thought that popped into my head was, “How big is this going to get? Is this the BIG ONE?” I waited in bed another 2-3 seconds to try and gauge if it would end, continue at this level or get more intense. I could actually feel it growing stronger, and when patches of plaster from my wall and ceiling fell on my head, I figured it was time to take cover. Just as I got out of bed to crawl under a table, a BIG jolt hit that literally threw me into the doorway next to the table (it wasn’t until an hour or two later I realized how seriously bruised my shoulder was). Maybe I imagined it, but I remember hearing a BOOM in conjunction with that jolt. A few more seconds of this and then it was over. A very eerie silence followed. But what was I expecting? It was 4:30 in the morning and pitch black outside.

I put on my shoes and went to check on my sister and brother-in-law, with whom I was living at the time. Thankfully, we had lots of flashlights with fresh batteries. Everyone was fine. As James Bond might have characterized us, we were “Shaken, not stirred.” The house, however, took a beating. Tons of broken glass, dishes, etc. Books, bookcases, furniture tossed about.

We went next door to check on our 94-year old neighbor to see how she was doing. What I saw broke my heart. She was huddled in the darkness, shaking, alone and scared to death. We stayed with her until she was calm and reassured that things would be ok.

When it started getting light about an hour and a half later, we ventured outside and saw widespread damage. Probably 3 out of 4 houses on the street had lost their chimneys, ours included. Several cars had been crushed by falling debris. Porches had collapsed. A couple of houses listed to one side, as they had clearly slid off their foundations.

The rest of the day was punctuated by aftershocks. Lots of aftershocks. Did you know in some instances an aftershock can actually be larger than what we think of as the main quake? Thankfully it didn’t happen in this case.

Why do I share my earthquake stories? Because there are undoubtedly literally millions of people in California area who have never experienced a serious earthquake and don’t know what to expect. Sometime between right now and the next 20-30 years, that’s likely going to change in very big way. The USGS puts the probability of a 6.7+ magnitude earthquake in Southern California within the next 25 years at 67%.  Most likely, it will occur along the southern section of the San Andreas fault. Historical data show that the average time between earthquakes in the southern end of the San Andreas fault is 150 to 200 years. The last earthquake along the southern section of the San Andreas was back in 1680, over 330 years ago. That puts us more than 150 years overdue.

Before you pack your bags, sell the house or tear up your rental agreement and move out of state, there are things you can do to both protect yourself during an earthquake and cope with its aftermath. A good place to start is the Disaster Resources page on this website. But if you’re too lazy to do that, just remember to do a few things:

Drop. Cover. Hold On.

  • DROP to the ground (before the earthquake drops you!)
  • Take COVER by getting under a sturdy desk or table
  • HOLD ON to it until the shaking stops.

If there isn’t a table or desk near you, drop to the ground in an inside corner of the building and cover your head and neck with your hands and arms. Do not try to run to another room just to get under a table.

  • Securely store water. Lots of water. 7 gallons minimum per person in your household.
  • Beside every bed, put a pair of hard sole shoes and a flashlight w/ fresh batteries taped to the outside

There’s much more you can do, but those things are a start. With a little effort and preparation, we can all get through whatever Mother Nature throws our way. And then you’ll have your own earthquake stories to tell.