Ready for the Big One? : Experts remind one county resident that even if they can’t predict earthquakes, being prepared will bring peace of mind.


Earthquakes are fascinating, and there is no end to the riveting facts and trivia about them. Did you know, for example, that aborigines in Zaire believed their jungle to be the hair of a great god, and earthquakes were an attempt by this follicly endowed deity to dislodge the lice within? Or that the noise alone at the epicenter of the Northridge earthquake, 11 miles beneath the Earth’s surface, could have crushed you? Or that the two giant tectonic plates on which much of California rests are edging past each other at a rate which, in roughly 12 million years, will place Los Angeles and San Francisco side by side?

I toss in this last bit of trivia, not so your descendants can get a jump on parking, but to underscore two important points, one geological, the other quite human. Despite an outward appearance of solidity, the Earth is constantly quaking and shifting the ground beneath our feet, adjusting incessantly like a Jenny Craig enrollee in spandex pants.

Most of this movement takes place at rates so slow it barely registers on the world’s seismographs. The only things that move more slowly are our own attempts at earthquake preparation.

This is surprising given that when the Earth moves at a noticeable rate it is, in my mind, an attention-getting experience. When the Northridge quake erupted last Jan. 17 at 4:31 in the morning, I was giving a bottle to our then 10-month-old son. Our house immediately began jolting to and fro, but it wasn’t until I looked at a nearby bookcase and saw Pooh, Piglet and Eeyore banging about like punk rockers in a mosh pit that I knew something was frightfully wrong. I swayed into our bedroom where my wife sat bolt upright in bed. While our son continued to suck doggedly, my wife and I sat in mute terror, his formula mixing itself thoroughly in our blender-cum-home.


Eventually the shaking stopped. With no electricity, no chance of sleeping and, most importantly, no one to compare notes with, we wandered into the street to join a small group of neighbors. The sky, just showing the dawn, had an eerie blue tint, the lingering result of exploding electrical transformers. Ron VanBuskirk, a native Californian, eyed this unnatural aurora borealis appreciatively.

“Weird looking, huh?” he said.

When I’m really frightened I tend to go mute, an instinctual response that keeps me from biting off my tongue.

“Earthquakes don’t bother me,” Ron said, pausing to tip back the beer can in his hand. “I’ve seen enough of them.”


Given his bravado I was fairly sure it wasn’t the first beer Ron had seen that morning either, but I make it a habit not to insult anyone I have to encounter on a daily basis. Besides, Ron might have been telling the truth. Several weeks later I witnessed similar nonchalance on a much larger scale. I was in the car at a mall parking lot when a quake aftershock hit. It felt like somebody pushing up and down on the back bumper, but when I turned around, no one was there. In the car next to me an elderly woman rocked forward and back like a toddler on one of those tiny supermarket rides. The shaking was short-lived. Several minutes later, several groups of shoppers strolled casually from the mall’s entrance as if nothing had happened. Eventually my wife appeared. She, too, was unconcerned.

“Pretty fast, wasn’t I?” she said, plopping into the passenger seat with an armload of packages. “Everyone started leaving so I got right to the front of the line.”

Tremors: Earthquakes terrify me. I have a hypersensitivity to ground motion, perhaps traceable to my grandmother who was shut up in a fold-a-bed during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. I’m not alone in my fear either. The Northridge quake rattled many folks to their core. Post quake, some took to sleeping fully clothed by their front doors. Others took showers with their underwear on and their keys in their mouth. Plenty of people were scared enough to admit it.

“This earthquake frightened me,” Ventura sociologist Robert Benedetto told me when I called him several weeks ago and asked how he had weathered the Northridge quake. When the quake hit, Benedetto, his wife and their 15-year-old son squeezed under a desk in their home. As the house rocked, the son soothed the agitated father. “He was trying to calm me down, telling me to relax ,that everything would be all right,” Benedetto said.


It’s the rare man who publicly owns up to his fears. I appreciated Benedetto’s honesty even more, given his position as disaster coordinator for Ventura County Department of Mental Health. An experienced calamity specialist for nearly 20 years, Benedetto understands why many Californians ignore earthquakes until their house starts to rumba.

“When we are children and we don’t want to see something, we pull the covers over our heads and we feel that we’ll be safe by doing that,” he said. “Going through the normal routine of life, and not owning up to the fact that a disaster is coming is the same type of magical thinking: ‘If I really and truly believe that something isn’t going to happen, it won’t.’ ”

Irrational, irresponsible and a fantasy I, personally, had clung to feverishly ever since I first felt the Earth shift underfoot. In my defense, the Northridge quake had prompted a semblance of preparedness on my part, which is to say I immediately rushed out and stood in a line two blocks long to buy three flashlights and several packs of batteries that I wouldn’t be able to find two weeks later.

Within the week, I also purchased a large plastic container and stuffed it with a few staples, peanut butter, a box of Ritz crackers, toilet paper and a tube of Cheez Whiz. There were other things I meant to take care of, things that disaster people are always nagging us about--strapping down the water heater, leaving a wrench by the gas shut-off valve, learning first aid--but there were always more important things to do. These chores would flit through my consciousness occasionally and I would vow to take care of them as soon as “Hard Copy” was over.


Recently, however, warning lights began flashing with an almost karmic regularity that even I couldn’t ignore. Digging through a jumble of boxes in our garage--where apparently a minor seismic event had already taken place--I found the plastic container of earthquake supplies that was supposed to be in the trunk of my wife’s car. I pried open the lid. At one point the container had been stocked with a first-aid kit, space blankets, a flashlight and several days worth of food. Inside there was a box of crackers and a can opener, in case the box top proved pugnacious. Two days later I pulled a flashlight from a drawer and clicked it on. Nothing. I opened the back and turned it upside down. Two gooey brown cylinders separated themselves from the rust inside and plopped into my hand.

“Think they’re still good?” asked my wife sarcastically, who never seems surprised by my ability to put things off.

I began my preparation by making some phone calls to a few neighbors, hoping to find soul mates in ineptitude. They were of no help.

“We’re pretty well prepared,” said Kelly Lynn, proceeding to run down a list of supplies that would have shamed an army platoon. He even had dates taped to the tops of his food cans. Lynn did admit that the Northridge quake had highlighted several weaknesses in his family’s preparation. For one thing, he had stored their supplies in the garage.


“When the electricity went off we couldn’t work our electric garage door opener and we didn’t have another door to the garage,” Lynn said. “We do now.”

I also called friends Hope and Jon Avery. They too felt fairly confident about their preparations. Hope told me they had supplies tucked away in the garage, and if their house was rendered uninhabitable, the family could live in their van. Like most of the people I talked to, they still felt there was more that could be done, but Hope allowed that no one could plan for everything.

When the shaking from the Northridge quake had subsided, a friend of theirs calmly donned the boots he had placed by the bedside, and strode resolutely into the street to meet a drafty dawn, buck naked.

“I always wear pajamas to bed,” said Hope, “but if we have to leave the house in a hurry, Jon might have a problem.”


That our friends were prepared was comforting, though mildly annoying. A wider sampling was sure to supply me with irresponsible and ill-prepared kinfolk. When I spoke to Brian Bolton, executive director of the Ventura County Chapter of the American Red Cross, I felt better.

“I would say that the majority of people in the county probably have a flashlight somewhere in the house that they can’t find, and they probably have some canned food that’s been on a shelf in the garage for a long time,” he said.

Had the man done a surreptitious spot inspection of our home?

I waited for Bolton to go on, but he didn’t. So I asked him, solely in the interest of objective journalistic research, how these idiots might get started on making adequate preparations. Bolton advised that I begin by fastening down my water heater. He then recommended getting a to-do list, which the Red Cross provides, eliminating the chance of forgetting anything.


He also offered some nuggets of advice that even the well prepared might have failed to consider. He recommended tennis shoes, a blanket, a first-aid kit and a fire extinguisher for each car, along with a reflecting mirror that could be used to signal for help. He advised always keeping my car’s gas tank at least half full because power outages would render fuel pumps useless.

Getting all the supplies I needed, said Bolton, wouldn’t take more than an afternoon. If I wasn’t much for shopping, the Red Cross supplies earthquake preparedness kits that, except for food, provide almost all the supplies needed in a disaster.

There was the $45 “Commuter Survival Kit” for the car, and the $135 “911 4-Person Kit” containing everything from 12-hour light sticks to toothbrushes. The Red Cross also sells items individually, and for reasonable prices, among them space blankets, water purification tablets and batteries that will outlast most marriages.

“The fact is most of us are going to survive,” Bolton told me. “The question is, are you prepared to survive survival? You need to be prepared to go for 72 to 96 hours alone.”


Lastly, Bolton recommended I get started.

“You now have 48 hours to do something,” he said. “If you do something in the next two days, it will get done. If you don’t, you’ll forget about it.”

Guilt: Consider it done, I assured Bolton, deliberately choosing an ambiguous statement that allowed me room to maneuver: If I failed to make preparations in the next two days, I could now forget about it guilt free.

Truth is, though I respect them greatly, I’ve always believed that people whose business is disaster are worry warts by nature. Add to that the fact that the rest of us have to be incessantly goaded to action, and it’s easy to understand why disaster coordinators, seismologists and their ilk start to sound like nags.


This portrait is exaggerated by the inexactitude of earthquake science. Seismologists may be able to measure earthquakes by as many as 20 different means, but they haven’t the faintest clue when the next quake will strike. They’ve grabbed on to some intriguing methods for predicting quakes--everything from measuring shifts in ground water to changes in the electromagnetic readings of the Earth and catfish behavior--with little success.

Take the case of Parkfield, south of Coalinga. Since 1857 this tiny community, located midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco and smack dab on the San Andreas Fault, has been hit by six large quakes at an average interval of 22 years. Thus seismologists were pretty confident when they predicted that a quake would strike Parkfield sometime around 1988, 22 years after the last quake. As this new year dawned, Parkfield hadn’t had a tremor. Such vagueness is hardly the kick in the pants a staunch procrastinator needs.

To make matters worse, Ventura County’s own seismological history doesn’t provide much of an impetus; the county’s seismic history has been about as spicy as dinner conversation at the Waltons. One possible reason: We may be in the middle of a “seismic gap,” or at least that’s what Jim Fisher told me when I met with him at the county government center.

An engineering geologist, the soft-spoken Fisher is intimately familiar with local ground movement. Sure county rumblings to date have been pretty quiet, said Fisher, but that doesn’t mean local faults aren’t capable of providing a real jolt.


“The largest recorded earthquake with an epicenter onshore in Ventura County is only a 4.7, and the largest offshore earthquake was a 5.9 a few miles off Point Mugu,” Fisher said . “Does this mean we’re favored by some deity, that we’re never going to have a major earthquake in the county? Not likely. What we may be looking at here is a seismic gap where the interval between damaging quakes is longer than the historical record.”

Fisher put forth another disturbing thought. Since 1986 there has been a series of sizable quakes to the east and west of the county. And quakes to the south have been showing a pattern that resembles a northwestward march. It’s trite, but the enemy may be closing in.

“We should be concerned about the imminence of a large, damaging quake,” said Fisher. “Not an 8 but maybe a 6 or 7 on one of our local faults.”

Like most students of earthquakes, Fisher is fascinated by the power and consequence of the Earth moving. While the Northridge quake rocked the county, Fisher sat in bed, his mind doing some quick figuring while his senses nearly drowned in the noise and power. When the shaking stopped, he knew it was bad but he also knew it wasn’t the Big One.


“I knew it wasn’t an 8 on the San Andreas because the shaking from that would last a lot longer,” Fisher said. “Can you imagine the shaking lasting two or three minutes?”

The Northridge quake flattened freeways, sandwiched buildings and ruptured steel pipelines. The shaking lasted 10 seconds.

I was beginning to suspect that Fisher was in cahoots with every expert I talked to, an white-smocked assemblage plotting to drive me mad with fear. Fisher removed his wire-rimmed glasses, rubbed his eyes and smiled at me in a friendly professorial manner.

“I’m not trying to scare you,” he said. “But it’s important to remember that we’re dealing with a phenomenon that’s unpredictable and strikes without warning. We could be two minutes away from an earthquake or it could be 20 years from now. Don’t live in fear; just be prepared. Then you can relax.”


Easy for him to say. His earthquake preparations didn’t look like they’d been organized by a classroom of first-graders. As soon as I got home, I pulled out the plastic tub that contained our home earthquake supplies. A number of items were conspicuously absent, among them flashlights and diapers, but to our credit there was a first-aid kit, five solar blankets, several pages of earthquake advice torn from the phone book’s white pages (a wonderful resource), cans of chicken noodle soup, boxes of chicken flavored crackers and nine packages of ramen noodles (chicken flavored)--enough chicken products to bring hoots of glee from Foster Farms.

“I like chicken,” my wife said.

She also had had the foresight to save essentials I hadn’t considered.

“I might need a butane hair curler,” she said defensively. “In case the electricity goes out and I have to go to work.”


Action: Three weeks after the Red Cross’ Bolton imposed his 48-hour deadline, I finally got started. Armed with several checklists, I set about preparing our family for an earthquake. At first glance the lists had seemed daunting, but once I got started I found that most of the tasks were easily accomplished.

I called the utility companies, and helpful folks told me how to turn off my gas, water and electricity. I drove to the Red Cross and bought a commuter survival kit for our car, along with a $5 water heater strap kit (“One of our hottest sellers,” the receptionist told me). I added items to our emergency supplies, bought additional foodstuffs to ensure a more varied menu, and placed it all in our garage, which has a manually operated door.

There are still things I need to do: Take a first-aid course, check to see if our camping stove still works, buy a first-aid kit for my car. There were also things I chose not to do. Putting latches on all of our cabinet drawers seemed like too much work, though one day I may be crushed by several hundred pounds of Tupperware.

In the end, one can’t prepare for all of life’s exigencies. Of the stories that emerged from the Northridge quake, one sticks with me. Moments before the Northridge Meadows apartments collapsed, killing 16 people on the bottom floor in their beds, one ground-floor resident wandered into his kitchen for a bologna sandwich. He was found beside his refrigerator, which had held up just enough of the collapsed ceiling to spare him.


It’s always tempting to resign yourself to fate. As I write this, the water heater strap kit--a neat coil of plumbers tape and four screws--rests on the desk next to me. I’ll strap down the water heater this afternoon. This time I mean it.



You should have on hand enough emergency supplies for at least 72 hours:


* Flashlights with extra batteries: Do not use matches or candles until you are certain there are no gas leaks.

* Portable radio with extra batteries.

* First aid-kit and fire extinguisher.

* Food: Store a one-week supply of food per person.


* Water: Store enough water for each person to have one gallon per day. Store in airtight containers and replace every six months.

* Pets: Include food and water for your animals. Remember they may not be allowed at an emergency shelter.

* Blankets, clothing and shoes: Have enough to keep warm. Have sturdy shoes to protect feet from broken glass and other debris.

* Special items: Have at least a week’s supply of medications, extra eyeglasses or contact lenses, food for infants and those on special diets.


* Cash: Keep some cash on hand; automated teller machines may not be working and stores may not be able to accept checks or credit cards.

* Alternate cooking: May include a barbecue or camp stove. Include matches, hand-operated can opener and heavy-duty aluminum foil.

* Shelter and repairs: A tent if available. Also, a coil of half-inch rope, plastic tape and plastic sheeting to cover damaged windows or walls.

* Sanitation supplies: Large plastic bags for trash, waste and water protection. Also make up personal hygiene kits.


* Tools: Heavy gloves for clearing debris. Crescent or pipe wrench to turn off gas and water if necessary. Other tools should include an ax, crowbar, shovel, broom, screwdriver, pliers, hammer, knife or razor blades. Keep a garden hose for siphoning and firefighting.



* Communications: Decide where your family will reunite if separated. Choose an out-of-state friend whom separated family members can call to report their whereabouts (avoid using local telephone lines).


* Safe spots: Know the ones in your house--under sturdy tables or desks, or against inside alls.

* Danger spots: Know the ones in your house--windows, mirrors, hanging objects, fireplaces and tall furniture.

* First aid: Learn first-aid procedures and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

* Phone numbers: Keep a list of emergency phone numbers posted.


* Utilities: Learn how to shut off gas, water and electricity in case the lines are damaged. But do NOT attempt to relight a gas pilot light; call the utility company.

* Structural check: Check chimneys, roofs, walls and foundation for stability.

* Appliances: Secure water heater and appliances that could move enough to rupture utility lines.

* Storage: Keep breakables and heavy objects on bottom shelves.


* Furniture: Secure heavy, tall furniture that can topple.

* Walls: Secure hanging plants and picture frames or mirrors, especially over beds.

* Cabinets: Put latches on cabinet doors to prevent objects from falling out.

* Dangerous materials: Keep flammable or hazardous liquids such as paints, pest sprays and cleaning products in cabinets or secured on lower shelves.


* Children: Familiarize yourself with the emergency plans of children’s school or day care center. Make backup plans for someone else to pick them up if necessary. Include books, toys, games in your emergency supplies.


Ventura County Chapter, American Red Cross

2355 Portola Road


P.O. Box 5850

Ventura, CA 93005-5850




Ventura County Sheriff’s Department

800 S. Victoria Ave.

Ventura, CA 93009



SOURCES: State Office of Emergency Services; California Department of Conservation, Division of Mines and Geology, Times staff.