Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Northridge Earthquake, Pt. I

I offer the following to illuminate your preparations for disasters generally, and earthquakes specifically, having some wee experience with both.

The San Fernando Earthquake of 1971 was comparatively minor: a 6.6 monster that made it possible to surf the land waves in the back yard. Yes, really.  And then spend the day at school playing in a nearby park, because my school was downstream of the cracked earthen dam nearest the epicenter, and the authorities didn't want us swimming around if it failed. Once that was drained, no big deal, except for the occupants of a couple of substandard hospitals now about 5 feet tall, or the two guys tragically 6 feet too far under an overpass that landed on the cab of their now 3-inch tall F150 pickup cab. It also had the good grace to hit in the early morning, after 6AM.

Northridge was a tad more troublesome. First of all, it was a 7.0 (later, nota bene, politically downgraded on the rather elastic scale to a 6.9, thus magically avoiding a host of insurance company provisions for private and federal disaster insurers for earthquakes of 7.0 or larger).

But the quake was actually in Reseda, or rather, several miles under Reseda, the next closest suburb to the south of Northridge, located just about smack in the middle of the heavily populated San Fernando Valley. And, as it happened, about 3 miles from where I was sleeping.

The popular saying at the time was, any day that starts at 4:31AM, probably isn't going to get any better. So now, recollections, by the numbers.

I lived on the third of 4 floors, in a modest 2-bedroom apartment, about a block from where I'd lived from 0-21 years of age. The ground floor was under-building parking, and then three floors of apartments around a central courtyard. So my residence was the architectural equivalent of the middle square on the Hollywood Squares.

First came a gentle shove, like someone shoving the bed to wake you up. Which it did. Followed immediately afterward by the shaking.

Again, having lived lifelong in L.A. and SoCal, like most of my California native peers, and any number of long-term transplants, we're aficionados about earthquakes. We've all been through the back and forth rocking that feels like the sway of a train car you're riding on, and we can tell with pretty good guesstimates whether it's a 3, a 4, a 5, or something bigger but far away. Things jiggle, rattle, sway, and such, it lasts 5-20 seconds, and it stops. The longer it lasts, the bigger it was, and the further away it probably was, or you wouldn't be feeling it. These shakes only scare the newbs. Boo frickin' hoo for them.

That wasn't the experience of this one, very nearby, and much larger than anything similar for a century or more. Bearing in mind my location in the central square of the tic-tac-toe board of my side of the apartment complex, this shaking wasn't the standing on a skateboard sway I'd grown used to over 3 decades of experience.

To properly visualize this, imagine the Jolly Green Giant had grabbed opposing corners (like NW and SE, etc.) of the entire building, and was alternately slamming one after the other into the ground, as hard as he could. While simultaneously, something grabbed ahold of your private parts, and was slamming your @$$ down into the floor like they were churning butter, WHAM!WHAM!WHAM!WHAM!-style. That's what sitting on top of this felt like.

As if this change in experiences wasn't enough to get one's attention, this particular part of the exercise didn't settle down. It got worse. And continued. And continued. And continued. For at least a full 45 seconds. Bounce on a trampoline for 45 seconds sometime, as you time it. Now try it without the net and springs. That's the actual earthquake.

You have time to notice things. The fact that you're butt-naked sitting in a bed, and the mattress still isn't enough padding. The fact that your then-spouse is clinging ahold of you hard enough to leave marks on your neck and shoulders for days afterward. The fact that all the power is out, but the brilliant blue explosions outside as thousands of pole-mounted transformers explode from the short-circuiting going on.

The curiosity about whether you're going to die when the entire building pancakes and crushes you under tons of debris, or if the outside wall falls away, and you get bounced out to the street 50 feet below. Not whether, just which one. You notice the sounds of everything you own in the kitchen shattering as they get shaken off of shelves like a terrier snapping a rat around. And the same sounds as this is happening in apartments beside, above, below, and cattycorner to yours. The smells as each bottle of food item splatters on the tile floor. "There goes the sesame oil. That smells like the teriyaki. Now I'm smelling Worcestershire sauce." and so on.

So Lesson One is simple, and rather Zen/Bushido:
Accept that you're going to die, get over it, and concentrate on what to do between now and that finality.

Because eventually, either you will, or, in this instance, after a lifetime of getting rocked, it stops.

Followed by what would be merciful silence, except for one damned inescapable urban cacophony: the sound of every last car alarm for 50 miles going off at the same time.
First thought: "Hey, @$$holes, turn your g**d***** car alarms off, because we've got some serious $#!^ to deal with here."

My first plan was to find the flashlight, which I do. Spouse elects to spend a few moments totally losing her $#!^, apparently because to her way of thinking, that's the most productive thing to spend time on. Corporate MBA executive bigdeal thinking apparently can't process the very ground you walk on trying to kill you with as much emotion as stepping on an ant.

I find a flashlight, survey the room, decide it looks like hell, but there's no massive cracks. Find another flashlight and hand it to her.

"Honey? Get. Dressed. Now. Got it?"

She sobs out an "okay" and starts fumbling around. I am too, but mainly because I know where I put my stuff, only where it was and where it is now have had an intermission of 45 seconds in a large spin dryer of fate. I manage to get a full set of clothes on, and find both sets of car keys. A quick look outside the bedroom shows the kitchen looks like Baghdad after a bombing run. I tell the missus I'm going out to go move the cars out from under the building, and that she should start finding anything important she needs to take, in case we have to evacuate. I notice the living room seems to be an inch lower than the kitchen and dining room, and the spare room where my computer and bookshelves live is now an Impressionist piece entitled "Handgrenade In A Library". I head out the front door, and around the walkway to the stairs, all, fortunately still attached to the building.

As I descend the stairs, just as I'm between the 1st floor and the parking level, the first aftershock hits. It's a 6.0. Emotionally and physiologically wrung out of anything left, as I'm caroming back and forth between the walls mid-flight on the last run of stairs, I offer a prayer out loud:
"Look God, either kill me, or quit screwing around, because I've got things to do."

Apparently God either has a sense of humor, or it's nothing personal, because being far less ferocious than the main quake, the aftershock ends, and I continue into the darkened structure. The first good sign is that I've not only not been crushed in the stairwell, but that three floors of apartment plumbing aren't leaking all over the parking area. With no power, I wonder how the metal gate is going to get opened, but as I get there, someone has gotten there ahead of me, and pushed it open by hand. Yay, Random Neighbor. So I move first one car, then the other, to the street outside, across from my building, because there's nothing on that side to fall on the cars besides leaves from maple trees, and poop from terrified squirrels. Then I head back in and upstairs.

Wife is somewhat better off now, and dressed. We (okay, I) had previously loaded up 4 moving boxes, each with a week's canned food items, and a couple more with lights and propane for cooking and seeing in case of emergency. I decide this might be an emergency, and organize the 6V camp lamps and turn them on, and set them up around the shambles we now call home.

Wife loads up her work essentials, and clothes, and important papers, and her scrapbook of photos, and starts making trips to the car. I collate the arsenal and medical stuff, and leave it inside the door. Then I notice folks around the complex running around like headless chickens getting organized. I take my medical bag, and start knocking on doors to see if anyone needs help, first on my floor, then the one above, and finally the one below. Everyone is shaken up, but no one is jacked up. I let them know the garage is open, and they might want to move their cars out while they can, in case of further quakes or building problems.

Getting back to my place, wife has about finished loading stuff in her car. I go outside and look around, at the marvel of an entire valley of several million people, all in the dark, and relatively quiet. Being January in SoCal, it's crisp but not freezing, and the forecast is for a sunny, bright day. Thank God. And I look down, and see the landlady, she and her husband very recent arrivals from Back East, in her robe and slippers, checking out the building with a candle on a candlestick holder, like some Dickensian character.

I immediately yell down to her that if there are any gas leaks around, she's now a human leak detector, and might want to put out the damned candle. She nods at me with Bambi-In-The-Headlights catatonia, and continues on, candle blazing away.

Lesson Two:
In a disaster, stupid people will get you killed.

I also know that most problems in earthquakes are caused by fires afterwards, and the building manager is clearly too shellshocked, or stupid, to live. And highly likely to burn my house down along with hers due to her lack of common sense. So I dig out a helpful universal emergency wrench, and head down to the gas meters at the street level.

I find a row of 30 or so meters, locate mine, and shut off the gas. Without electricity, the spiffy high-tech range with no pilot light can't start anyways, and opening the gas line later on is simple enough.

The  building manager/husband of Landlady Bambi appears, and asks me what I'm doing. After explaining the facts of life to him, he decides we should shut all the meters off. With his official approval, I now spin all the meters off. If our building does burn down, it won't be because some idjit blew the place up with leaking gas. Using candles for illumination is another kettle of fish, so it's time to beat feet for the moment.

Wife and I spend the next hour until daylight wrangling a picnic cooler, transferring the perishable food into it, gathering both our earthquake stash and as much undamaged canned goods as we can, and transferring that, stored water, clean clothes, my arsenal, and the medical stuff into our cars.

Lesson Three:
Providing yourself the means to make other life plans beats hell out of trying to do it on the fly, on the day.

Landlines are dead, and this is pre-cell phone, unless you're rich, so calling anyone is a wasted effort. At daylight, we lock the place up, and convoy the 3 miles over to her parents' house.

Lesson Four:
Despite driving like jackasses most days, when the power goes out, everyone realizes in about 0.1 seconds that every intersection is now a full 4-way stop, without anyone telling them, or any police presence whatsoever, and people get all kinds of polite, because they now know that their car is life, and can't afford to risk losing it in stupid fender-benders.

The in-laws are in similar shape, scooping up shattered bric-a-brac, except in a neighborhood of houses. Her dad has a TV set up running out of their camper, and the neighborhood has already got a couple of BBQs fired up for a community breakfast, which will be followed by a community lunch and dinner, to use up all the meat, eggs, dairy, etc. before it spoils.

So now, listening to radio and TV news coverage, we learn the location and magnitude of the disaster amidst which we just embarked upon living.

To be continued...


Butch_S. said...

I was about 40 miles due west of you that morning, been out there long enough that I'd grown to enjoy the occasional tremor. That one, not so much. ;-)

Aesop said...

Yup. Same here.

It's far less bitchin' when everyeffingthing for 30 miles is shaking up and down like a ride on a jackhammer, and you not only know you're going to die, but you have enough time to think about it before it happens.

Call it PTSD, or common sense, but now little tremors really piss me off, until they stop, and are always a good excuse to check the 50 things I know are important are ready to go if the tremors don't stop.