Planet Earth is constantly moving, spinning, spitting, twisting, spewing, smoking and more. Mother Earth has a mind of her own, and what with all the hurricanes, floods and earthquakes of late, she doesn’t seem to have a problem expressing her wrath and fury.

Here, in California, we live in the land of earthquakes or terremotos, as they are called in Central and South America. The wrath of Mother Earth’s fury confronts with your own mortality.

Six degrees of separation
Most recently, a 7.3 temblor with an epicenter south of Mexico City put the kibosh on a south-of-the-border trip. Although my destination was San Miguel de Allende (a city in the state of Guanajuato, which is popular with many ex-pats and not prone to earthquakes), I’d booked my flights in and out of the capital. A flurry of emails to a treasured friend in Mexico City confirmed my worst fears: People were dead, buildings were down, the population was in a state of shock — and fear. More importantly, a great cloud of sadness hovered over the city like the smog that envelopes the capital of some 20 million inhabitants. (A larger one, 8.1, had been registered 10 days earlier offshore from Chiapas on Sept. 7.)

Ironically, the huge recent Mexico quake occurred on the 32nd anniversary of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, which killed around 10,000 people. The 1985 quake was commemorated, and a national earthquake drill was held, at 11 a.m. local time, just two hours before the one last month.

The quake toppled buildings and killed 366. (In two degrees of separation, a close friend’s son lost two college student friends.)

Guatemala (and lingering effects)
In the beginning of 1976, I traveled to Guatemala with a girlfriend and her mother. My friend Dallas and I were in our early 20s; her mother, Helen, was 58. We flew into Mexico City, took a side visit to San Miguel de Allende before continuing our bus journey of several days to Antigua, Guatemala — passing through Oaxaca, with an overnight stop in San Cristobal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas en route.

We arrived in the lovely colonial city and settled into a guesthouse on the outskirts of the town that had been previously destroyed by earthquake, twice. At 3:01 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 4, we were shaken out of our beds on the second floor of Frau Dressler’s finca (farm, ranch). We, along with other guests, gathered and huddled around the radio in Dressler’s living room, anxious for news. A young couple was killed in one of the guestrooms, when a fireplace collapsed on them. Later that morning, we ventured into town and to the main square. Entire walls had collapsed and lay in the center of the square. We could see the interior of someone’s home, statues from the cathedral — carved stone heads literally rolled into the plaza — resting amidst the rubble. A volcano fumed in the distance and the movie Terremoto (the 1974 disaster film Earthquake) was showing at the local movie theater.

My friend Dallas and I picked oranges for the injured who were recovering in the hospital. We learned that the young man who knew how to run the only communication device to the outside world (a telegraph machine at the post office as I recall) had died. We realized that our friends and family back in the U.S. had no idea what had happened.  

Two days later, we were able to board a bus to Guatemala City, where we hoped the airport was functioning. During our journey on the Pan American Highway, a second quake hit. Boulders were bouncing across the highway as the driver swerved to avoid hitting the huge rocks. An oncoming bus was stopped — a landslide had blocked one side and passengers were climbing out the windows. When we arrived at the airport, the damaged terminal building was closed. We lined up outside on the tarmac with other tourists hoping to catch a flight home. We were able to board a flight. I started crying, and I still have the handkerchief given to me by the kind passenger sitting next to me. I was never so glad to be in the air and high above the not so “terra firma”.

What most impressed me during this tragedy — which killed 23,000 people and left 1 million people homeless — were how stoic the beautiful Guatemalan people were, how they went about their daily business as usual.

The Ventura Fault Line
On Oct. 19 (today, VCReporter’s publication date), at 10:19 a.m. the Great California ShakeOut is occurring with a statewide drop, cover and hold on!

If you missed the drill, you can get information on the website that includes what to pack in an emergency preparedness kit and how to best protect yourself. Get under a table, do NOT stand in a doorway and if you are in bed (or anywhere) protect your head and neck. The site does not address what to do if you live in a mobile/manufactured home that rests on pads and piers. Those spikes can protrude through the floor so you want to leap onto a bed or couch. If you are driving, pull to the side of the highway and set your parking brake.

According to Jason Ballmann, communications manager for the Southern California Earthquake Center at University of Southern Caliornia, there’s no way to predict earthquakes.

“The ‘big one’ is relative to you. Both the Northridge (1994) and the Bay Area quake in 1989 were moderate in size. We haven’t had the ‘big one’ yet. The last ‘big one’ in Southern California was the 7.8 in 1857 in Fort Tejon. According to the USGS (United States Geological Survey), 7.5 is a big one. Every 150 years or so we should have one, give or take 10-30 years. So it’s 160 years later, and we could expect a big earthquake any day, but in geological time we can’t predict anything. It may [happen in] 50 years.”

Ballmann does have advice for emergency preparedness: Parse it out and diversify your water supply. Store water in various spots. At the SCEC at UCS they store water in break rooms and offices.

Also, think about power storage. At home, you can engage a company like PhiPower in Ojai for back-up energy. Ballman recommends solar powered charging stations that keep getting lighter/slimmer/better and faster and/or simple battery packs (about $10 on Amazon) to charge cellphones up several times.

His secret weapon in his own kit? Sunblock, says the Texas native who grew up on a farm and knows something about being outside all day.

Everybody knows about the San Andreas Fault, but researchers in the past couple of years have been looking long and hard at the Ventura Fault which slices right through the middle of town and could cause a 7.7-8.1 earthquake from Santa Barbara (which was leveled in 1925 by a 6.8 quake) to San Bernardino.

But the L.A. Times reported (April 20, 2015), “A huge quake on the Ventura Fault could create a tsunami that would begin in the Santa Barbara Channel area, and would affect the coastline … of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, down through the Santa Monica area and further south, said Tom Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center and USC earth sciences professor, who was not involved in the research.”

You can track recent quakes of 2.5 magnitude or higher on the SCEC website.

The U.S. Geological Survey also posts earthquake activity, both natural and those triggered by human activity (i.e., drilling for oil). Oklahoma has been home to many human-induced temblors.

From north to south, California has had its share, from the 7.9 in 1857 to a lesser, but most recent shaker in Westwood the day before the Mexico City earthquake.  The 3.6 in West LA occurred at 11:15 p.m. on Sept. 18; Mexico City shook hard the following day.

Golden State’s earthquake history
Noteworthy California quakes include the Fort Tejon, Jan. 9, 1857, magnitude 7.9 (one person died when an adobe house collapsed, the worst type of structures to be in). The Owens Valley, March 26, 1872, magnitude 7.4 shaker stopped clocks as far away as San Diego. Some 155 tremors followed the Imperial Valley 7.8 quake of Feb. 24, 1892.
The most famous shake was the Great Quake of 1906 in San Francisco on the San Andreas Fault line. It triggered the burning of the city, and some 3,000 people perished as a result of the quake and fire.

Also in the last century, in 1922, Eureka got a wake-up call, magnitude 7.3. Kern County’s 1952 temblor was a 7.3, and some may recall the Landers 7.3 on June 28 in 1992.

Remember the big 6.7 Northridge earthquake in 1994? The epicenter was Chatsworth, but Santa Monica was hard hit and Las Vegas even felt it, 220 miles away. Fifty-seven people perished, 8,700 were injured and two aftershocks registered 6.0 on the Richter scale. Property damage was estimated to be between $13 and $50 billion.

Vito Pace is the owner of Tile Clearance in Chatsworth. Vito Pace’s father, Giovanni, emigrated from Southern Italy and was the first to import marble to the area in the late 1950s. He built up his business over the decades until that quake hit.

“We took a $13 million hit. Our storage yard and warehouse full of marble slabs and stone and tiles all just came down like dominos and fell over and broke,” Vito said. Earthquake insurance was not available for raw materials. Even though the family owned business with 100 employees attempted to negotiate with the bank and told them that their vendors were willing to work with them, CIT Group came in and “put chains on the doors and auctioned everything off.”

“The first day I saw my dad cry was after the earthquake,” Vito recalled. Right after the bank came in, Giovanni Pace had a seizure and his health immediately declined. He passed away from cancer in 2008.

The Great Lone Pine Earthquake of 1872
John Muir wrote this about his experience of March 26, 1872, while caretaking Black’s Hotel on the floor of the Yosemite Valley just beneath Sentinel Rock: “At half past 2 o’clock of a moonlit morning in March, I was awakened by a tremendous earthquake, and though I had never before enjoyed a storm of this sort, the strange thrilling motion could not be mistaken, and I ran out of my cabin, both glad and frightened, shouting, ‘A noble earthquake! A noble earthquake,’ feeling sure I was going to learn something.”

Protective measures before an earthquake

The following are things you can do to protect yourself, your family, and your property in the event of an earthquake:

  • Repair defective electrical wiring, leaky gas lines, and inflexible utility connections. Get appropriate professional help. Do not work with gas or electrical lines yourself.
  • Bolt down and secure to the wall studs your water heater, refrigerator, furnace, and gas appliances. If recommended by your gas company, have an automatic gas shut-off valve installed that is triggered by strong vibrations.
  • Place large or heavy objects on lower shelves. Fasten shelves, mirrors, and large picture frames to walls. Brace high and top-heavy objects.
  • Store bottled foods, glass, china, and other breakables on low shelves or in cabinets that fasten shut.
  • Anchor overhead lighting fixtures.
  • Be sure the residence is firmly anchored to its foundation.
  • Install flexible pipe fittings to avoid gas or water leaks. Flexible fittings are more resistant to breakage.
  • Locate safe spots in each room under a sturdy table or against an inside wall. Reinforce this information by moving to these places during each drill.
  • Hold earthquake drills with your family members: Drop, cover, and hold on!