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‘Quake Lady’ Tries to Calm Rattled Nerves

After hearing a discussion Friday morning by a Caltech seismologist known as the “Earthquake Lady,” some in the audience felt better, some felt worse and some still seemed to be feeling anxiety from the Northridge quake.

But at least Caltech staff seismologist Kate Hutton taught them it was still important to laugh.

“We have to keep our sense of humor,” said Hutton, who earned her nickname for being frequently quoted in the press on the subject of temblors. She gave a slide show and talk at the Sportsman’s Lodge in Studio City as part of a community breakfast organized by Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar).

Hutton gave a lay person’s talk on earthquakes, explaining the movements of the Earth’s plates, discussing various fault systems and describing how she does her job.

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Hutton’s talk was attended by property owners, insurance experts and amateur earthquake researchers, all hanging on every word.

“Half of you are here to be reassured,” Katz said before the talk. “The other half are convinced that afterwards you’ll be more scared than you were before.”

A few in the audience of about 300 people had theories about why earthquakes happen, pointing out that major quakes seem to occur close to sunrise or sunset, or during certain phases of the moon. Hutton dismissed those ideas because they only show statistical coincidence.

“I think people learn too fast from just one instance,” said Hutton, who was asked if the Northridge earthquake was as terrifying to her as is was to people in the audience.

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“Well, no, because I don’t live in the San Fernando Valley,” Hutton said. “Plus, the anxiety I had was to say the right thing to the press.”

Sitting in the back of the room was the owner of several apartment buildings who was considering buying the services of a Pasadena company that he said claimed to have a listing--by address--of the earthquake threat to properties for the next 30 years.

Acquiring such knowledge--at $200 a property--seemed tempting to the man, who lost four buildings in Sherman Oaks during the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake. But he was having second thoughts. He declined to be identified.

“I’m not sure I really want to know that, to be honest,” he said. But from what he learned from Hutton on Friday, he was skeptical of the company’s claims.

“I don’t know that it would be accurate enough to stand up in court,” said Hutton, who explained to the group why earthquake prediction is not possible now. Some recent earthquakes--including the Northridge temblor--were generated by faults that had not been discovered or plotted out.

After the talk, about 20 people gathered to ask more questions.

“I wanted to see the woman of earthquakes,” said Nancy Gannon, who was worried about the fate of her one-story wood-frame house in Canoga Park. It survived the Northridge earthquake, but she feared she would lose it if the “Big One,” a major quake on the San Andreas fault, were to hit.

“It would probably be OK,” said Hutton, explaining that a San Andreas quake would probably not hit her home with much more force than the Northridge quake.

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“I feel so much better,” Gannon said. “Not tremendously, I still feel a little anxiety.”


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