Quakes push Californians to prepare for next big jolt

RIDGECREST, California (AP) – Shaken residents are cleaning up from two of the biggest earthquakes to rattle California in the United States (US) in decades as scientists warn that both should serve as a wake-up call to be ready when the long-dreaded ‘Big One’ strikes.

California is spending more than USD16 million to instal thousands of quake-detecting sensors statewide that officials say will give utilities and trains precious seconds to shut down before the shaking starts.

California Governor Gavin Newsom said it’s time residents did their part by mapping out emergency escape routes and preparing earthquake kits with food, water, lights and other necessities.

“It is a wake-up call for the rest of the state and other parts of the nation, frankly,” Newsom said at last Saturday’s news conference on efforts to help a desert region jolted by back-to-back quakes.

A magnitude 6.4 earthquake last Thursday and a magnitude 7.1 quake last Friday were centred 18 kilometres from the small desert town of Ridgecrest, about 241 kilometres from Los Angeles.

National Guard members load water onto an SUV in the aftermath of an earthquake, outside Trona High School in Trona, California. – AP

The quakes buckled highways and ruptured gas lines that sparked several house fires, and officials said about 50 homes in the nearby small town of Trona were damaged. No one was killed or seriously injured, which authorities attributed to the remote location in the Mojave Desert.

“Any time that we can go through a seven-point earthquake and we do not report a fatality, a major injury, do not suffer structure damage that was significant, I want to say that that was a blessing and a miracle,” Kern County Fire Department spokesman Andrew Freeborn said last Sunday.

Seismologists said a similar-sized quake in a major city like San Francisco, Los Angeles or San Diego could collapse bridges, buildings and freeways, as well as spark devastating fires fuelled by ruptured gas lines.

“We’re going to have a magnitude six, on average, somewhere in Southern California every few years. We’ve actually gone 20 years without one, so we have had the quietest 20 years in the history of Southern California,” said seismologist Lucy Jones of the California Institute of Technology.

“That’s unlikely to continue on the long run,” she added. “Geology keeps on moving … and we should be expecting a higher rate. And when it happens near people, it is going to be a lot worse.”

Thus the need for preparation, Newsom and others said.

Some Californians, like Greg Messigian of Los Angeles, said they’re already taking precautions. His wake-up call came with the 1994 Northridge earthquake that killed 61 people and caused USD15 billion in damage. His San Fernando Valley home, located just above the fault line, was all but destroyed.

“We had brick walls around the perimeter that had all fallen down. We had cracks in the pool. Inside the house everything that we ever had on a shelf was broken. Television sets fell off the places where they were and cracked. Our chimney was broken. There were cracks in the walls.”

With the help of earthquake insurance, he rebuilt.

Last Sunday, the retired schoolteacher was going over his preparedness kit, making sure he had everything he would need for the next quake.

Kathy Mirescu of Los Angeles said she had been meaning to restock her earthquake safety kit and got a push after the quakes she called the strongest she’s felt since moving to California in 2000.

“The size of those quakes drove home the urgency of making sure we had everything we needed,” she said.

As people prepared, authorities in rural Kern County repaired roads and utilities.

The quakes sparked several house fires, shut off power, snapped gas lines, cracked buildings and flooded some homes when water lines broke. Newsom estimated the damage at more than USD100 million and said US President Donald Trump called him to offer federal support.

All roads serving Ridgecrest, a town of 28,000 residents, were safe to drive again last Sunday, water and power had been restored and bus service would resume soon this week, Police Chief Jed McLaughlin said.

He said homes were being inspected for damage and that all government buildings were declared safe. Officials told several hundred people at a community meeting last Sunday evening in Ridgecrest to take precautions once running water returns to their homes after it was cut off by the two earthquakes that hit the town last week.

The officials asked residents at the two-hour meeting to boil the water for at least several days once it comes back on.

Mayor Peggy Breeden said that two trucks with water are coming to Ridgecrest and the nearby small town of Trona.

Residents of the nearby town of Trona, southwest of Death Valley, reported electricity had been restored but water and gas service was still out at many homes. People in the town of about 2,000 lined up for free water that California National Guard soldiers handed out at Trona High School.