Strong Quake in Desert Rolls Across Southland : 6.0 Temblor Awakens Residents in Wide Area; Damage Limited by Remote Site of Epicenter

Times Staff Writers

The strongest earthquake to hit Southern California in seven years jolted this desert area early Tuesday, causing widespread power outages, buckling highways, triggering rock slides and swaying buildings from the Nevada state line to the Mexican border.

Four people were hospitalized with earthquake-related injuries and a 96-year-old man was found dead in a recreational vehicle park in North Palm Springs. Authorities said, however, that the man may have died hours before the temblor hit.

The California Aqueduct was damaged in two places and more than a billion gallons of water had to be diverted into a desert lake bed.


Centered in a barren area of the Coachella Valley 12 miles northwest of here, the quake, measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale, struck at 2:21 a.m., shaking millions of Californians abruptly awake.

Authorities estimated damage at $2 million, a figure that might have been much higher if the epicenter had not been in a sparsely populated area, scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey office at Caltech said. Moreover, most structures in the area were built after earthquake-safe building codes were implemented in 1933.

“The main problem was confusion,” Palm Springs police spokesman Fred Donnell said. “The public was scared.”

Sharply Felt Jolts

Lasting from 20 to 30 seconds, the soft tremors mounted into sharply felt jolts, setting off a cacophony of car alarms in three counties, knocking mobile homes off their foundations and swaying high-rise buildings in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

“It was like a giant was behind the house shaking the whole thing,” said Roxana Melland, who lives with her husband, Scott, and two young daughters in the Painted Hills area near the quake’s epicenter. “Our bed slammed from one wall to the other and back again. The furniture went everywhere. The washer and dryer wandered out of the bedroom into the kitchen.”

Sgt. Mike McCracken of the California Highway Patrol office in Indio said the quake tumbled television monitors off the walls. “I thought we were all goners,” he said.


Boulders as big as cars pelted down on highways near Palm Springs, closing them to traffic for a time, and periodic blackouts were reported throughout the Coachella Valley in the morning. As many as 80,000 customers were temporarily without electricity but full power was restored by mid-afternoon.

General Telephone officials said 30,000 calls were made in and out of the Palm Springs area from 2:30 to 3 a.m. alone, more than 50 times the normal rate.

The quake was the sharpest to strike Southern California since 1979, when a temblor measuring 6.4 hit the Imperial Valley, injuring 91 people and causing $30 million in property damage.

The violent February, 1971, quake that struck the San Fernando Valley killed 65 people and injured 1,000. That temblor, measuring 6.5 on the Richter scale, caused more than $500 million in property damage. Aftershocks, some with magnitudes of as much as 5.7, continued for more than a week.

Each unit of the Richter scale represents a tenfold increase in ground motion.

Epicenter Pinpointed

On Tuesday, hundreds of aftershocks, some with magnitudes between 3 and 4, but most not noticeable, were recorded throughout the day, said seismologist Thomas Heaton, chief scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey office at Caltech in Pasadena. The shocks were felt as far away as San Diego.

The quake occurred along the the San Andreas Fault system, and scientists pinpointed it midway between the Banning and Mission Creek faults. The sharp jolt felt by residents of the area corresponded to a two-inch sideways slippage along the faults, scientists said.


One of the areas hardest hit was Whitewater Canyon, near the epicenter. Bruce Mckenzie, 62, of Huntington Beach was visiting an adobe cottage there owned by his family when the rumbling began. Hours later, Mckenzie stood amid the remnants of a crumbled chimney, near walls crisscrossed by six-inch cracks and said of the once-charming building: “I think now it’s trash.”

Fire officials in Riverside County blamed the earthquake for two small brush fires in the San Jacinto Mountains and a blaze at a Cathedral City glass company. The $45,000 fire inside the Cathedral Mirror & Glass Co. may have been sparked by a quake-caused electrical short circuit, Capt. Dan Proctor of the Riverside County Fire Department said.

Brush Fires Set

About 30 acres of vegetation were burned in the Cabazon Peak area west of Palm Springs, possibly caused when friction from rock slides sparked the dry brush. A fire started by fallen power lines blackened more brush in the Chino Canyon area.

Falling rock forced closure of California 111 from Interstate 10 leading into Palm Springs. It remained closed to southbound traffic through Tuesday night.

All but one lane of California 74, east of Cranston, was closed for most of the morning and California 243 was blocked for a time from near Idyllwild to Banning; both highways were reopened by noon.

California 62, which bisects the faults and where the pavement cracked and buckled a foot high in spots, remained closed from Pierson to the Morongo Grade.


Structural damage was reported on the Windy Point Bridge, also known as the White Water Bridge, at California 111, and ramps leading on and off the overpass were closed.

At the Western Village Mobile Home Ranch, four miles northwest of Palm Springs, 37 mobile homes were damaged and two were reported total losses after being jostled off their foundations. A dog was reportedly killed there and the damage was estimated at $150,000.

‘Hand of the Devil’

“It looks like the devil’s own hand stirred things up here,” said Anna Abston, manager of the mobile home facility.

A third mobile home in Whitewater Village also was destroyed.

Southern California Edison officials said the rumbling “zapped” circuit breakers at its major substation between Palm Springs and Desert Hot Springs, cutting off 500,000 volts of power fed into the station from the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant in Arizona.

Edison spokesman Bob Krauch said power was restored to most customers by 7:30 a.m. Still, as a result of the damage to the substation, power company officials were urging customers from Palm Springs to Redlands and San Bernardino to turn off their air conditioners and curtail other non-essential electrical use. With temperatures in some areas soaring over 100, Riverside County officials said they would open the air-conditioned Banning High School to people with heat-related problems.

Officials said the breakdown at the substation also contributed to a full loss of power at the Metropolitan Water District’s Hinds Pumping Station near Chiriaco Summit and a partial loss at the Eagle Mountain Pumping Plant near Desert Center. The power loss forced workers to dump more than a billion gallons of water into a dry lake bed in the desert, undermining a railroad trestle and creating minor flooding. Officials put the cost of the water loss at $920,000.


Threat to Agriculture

A water siphon near California 62 and 111 also was damaged and MWD spokesman Tim Skrove said there was an “outside possibility” that agricultural water supplies could be disrupted to the Moreno/Hemet valleys and parts of northern San Diego County.

In Palm Springs and other desert communities, the shaking was sharp enough to topple store shelves, keep burglar alarms ringing for hours and roust tourists from their hotel rooms.

A dog was treated at a pet hospital after running through a plate glass window after the quake. “There was a loud rumbling noise,” said Debbie Sanson, 28, a tourist from Houston who was staying at the newly opened Maxim’s. “I started screaming at my husband, telling him I was scared to death. . . . We grabbed a couple of those robes they give you and spent the rest of the night by the pool.”

Susan Johnson, 22, of Cathedral City was in labor at Palm Spring’s Desert Hospital when “the lights went out and the building started shaking. I think the earthquake helped my labor along.”

Johnson’s eight-pound daughter was born 21 minutes after the quake hit. “I wanted to call her Tremor,” joked Johnson’s husband, Jeff.

Treated at Hospital

Hospital spokeswoman Linda Riggs said 18 people were treated for earthquake-related ailments including cuts, abrasions, strains and chest pains. Four others were hospitalized, one in serious condition.


Damage to expansion joints on the hospital’s fifth floor forced the transfer of some patients to other floors.

Other than that, little damage was reported beyond broken windows, minor cracks in walls and ceilings and some broken water lines.

“We were very fortunate,” said Julie Baumer, assistant to the Palm Springs city manager.

Eugene Jimerson, a grocery supervisor at Jensen’s Finest Foods in Palm Springs, was stocking shelves with a co-worker when the building started to shake.

‘Started Running’

“I started running toward the back and the other guy started running toward the front,” Jimerson said. “We ended up running into each other. Things just kept pouring off the shelves until the whole floor was covered. At least 500 bottles of stuff broke. It smelled like someone had had an alcohol and vinegar party in here.”

The Nevada Department of Energy, which monitors movement in high-rise buildings, reported swaying in several Las Vegas hotels. “It definitely was felt here pretty strongly,” said Chris West, a department spokesman.

At the Westin Bonaventure hotel in downtown Los Angeles, it took two East Coast tourists only 10 minutes to check out after being jostled awake by the quake. “The woman was frightened and said she was leaving California forever, and that was it. She was prepared to sit there (at the airport) until the next flight East was available,” said Susan Fernau, a spokeswoman for the hotel.


In some Orange County neighborhoods, the racket from barking dogs and shrieking burglar alarms was fierce. At an all-night eatery in Irvine, diners refused to finish their meals after the quake set heavy chandeliers swaying above them.

And in San Diego, the temblor shook buildings from the port to El Cajon. The most substantial damage was to the San Diego County Courthouse, where the quake rocked tiles loose and cracked plastic braces. Another county building in Chula Vista suffered cosmetic cracks.

In Sacramento, Acting Gov. Leo McCarthy said he ordered state agencies to monitor the potential for dangerous aftershocks and to assist local governments in the wake of the quake.

“I have offered the assistance of the state agencies to local government,” said McCarthy, the Democratic lieutenant governor who was acting governor in the absence of Republican George Deukmejian, who attended a Western Governor’s Assn. meeting in Colorado Springs, Colo., and was expected back in the state Tuesday evening.

“I have been in contact with Riverside County Supervisor Kay Ceniceros, who represents the area most damaged by the quake,” McCarthy said.

Eric Malnic reported from Palm Springs and Roxane Arnold from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Nieson Himmel in Los Angeles, Louis Sahagun in Riverside, Robert A. Jones in Palm Springs, Townsend Davis in San Diego and David Reyes in Orange County and editorial researcher Tom Lutgen contributed to this article.


MAJOR EARTHQUAKES California earthquakes since 1971 with a magnitude of more than 6.0 6.5 February 9, 1971 Epicenter: Sylmar (San Fernando Valley) Casualties: 65 killed (about 1,000 injuries) Damage: $511 million 6.4 October 15, 1979 Epicenter: El Centro Casualties: 91 injuries Damage: $30 million 6.3 & 6.4 May 25, 1980 (2 quakes the same day) Epicenter: Mammoth Lakes Casualties: 9 people injured Damage: $2 million 6.3 May 27, 1980 Epicenter: Mammoth Lakes Casualties: 7 people injured Damage: Same as May 25 figures 6.9 November 9, 1980 Epicenter: 50 miles off the coast of Humboldt County Casualties: 8 people injured Damage: $1.75 million 6.4 May 2, 1983 Epicenter: Coalinga Casualties: 47 injuries Damage: $31 million 6.2 April 24, 1984 Epicenter: Morgan Hill (southeast of San Jose) Casualties: 27 injuries Damage: $10 million April 18, 1906, San Francisco earthquake. Magnitude 8.3. More than 600 persons died in the earthquake and fires that followed. Property damage estimated at $400 million. April 18, 1906, San Francisco earthquake. Magnitude 8.3. More than 600 persons died in the earthquake and fires that followed. Property damage estimated at $400 million. Sources: California Dept. of Geology, California Office of Emergency Services and Los Angeles Times.