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City Beat: Ridgecrest earthquake shattered California’s cool

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Helen McDonald and her sons help remove drink bottles from toppled shelving in coolers at Minit Shop in Ridgecrest after a 6.4 earthquake Thursday morning.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

I used to be scared of California because I was scared of earthquakes. They loomed large in my arsenal of East Coast reasons why I’d never live on the West Coast.

Earthquakes remained atop my list of misgivings when, more than two decades ago, I surprised myself and moved to L.A. But then I got used to and even came to enjoy the thrill of the occasional quick jolt and roll — and gradually lost touch with what it was that had frightened me.

I’m embarrassed to say that, but for the events of last week, I might have remained in that state indefinitely.

Friday’s whopper of a temblor in particular shook a lot of us out of our oblivion, I think — and refocused us on the disaster preparations we too often let slide.

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Kathy Vander Housen hugs her friend Claire Barker after Barker said that she had found her two cats after the earthquake.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

It comes so naturally, I find, when it comes to disasters, to put on a kind of California cool — to scorn those who ask how we can live in a place where fires tear through neighborhoods and mudslides push homes off of hillsides and the Big One is an ever-looming threat. We deflect the comments smugly by saying “If that’s how you feel, don’t move here, more sun and fun for us,” and arguing that the catastrophes on TV are isolated, not where we live.

For many of us, that’s true. They are not part of our day-to-day. We’ve been lucky so far and prefer to hope that our luck will hold out than to contemplate the alternatives.

The Big One, of course, could be the big leveler, not discriminating between us and them.

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FULL COVERAGE: Major quakes hit Southern California »

When I was new to California, this idea was fresh in my mind. I learned the earthquake drill and I tried to follow it.

I used to have shoes next to my bed so I wouldn’t cut my feet in a quake’s broken glass. I used to check the flashlight I had there, too, to make sure its batteries were good. I had 5-gallon jugs of water on hand, an earthquake kit in the trunk of my car. I used to put time into thinking about what I would do when a major quake hit, how I would find my way to my husband if the power was out, the phone lines down, the surfaces of freeways rippled and rent.

That was then. Now I pretty much have to start from scratch. This was brought home to me with clarity on Friday night, when I got the first alert about the 7.1-magnitude quake from the other side of the country, where I was helpless to do anything. In a suburb of Boston, my husband and mother-in-law had gone to bed. Me, I stayed up all night, constantly checking my phone for fresh updates from my colleagues at The Times and watching Lucy Jones’ briefings with the rest of you.

I also got in touch with neighbors, my house sitter and the young family living in my guesthouse (baby fine, cats fine, nothing broken) and with the engaged local community I’ve grown close to as @latimescitybeat on Twitter. And I realized that I missed my home, even in the face of potential danger — that my desire to be in L.A. and to share its big moments now overtakes all else.

Sometimes it’s hard for me to summon the young, wide-eyed me who arrived in Southern California 22 years ago. All I know is that my attitude shifted rapidly from one extreme to the other — from frightened newbie to jaded old-timer.

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Brooke Thompson, 8, plays on the sleeping bag that her family slept in after a pair of major earthquakes drove them out of their home in Trona, Calif.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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I remember a quake soon after I arrived in L.A. that I learned about not from shaking but from relatives thousands of miles away. My parents were up in our cabin in Maine, which doesn’t have a phone, but they had heard the news on the radio and rushed into town to call me. I was too new on my job as a West Coast writer for an East Coast newspaper to understand that quakes occurred a lot and often didn’t warrant coverage. So I jumped in my car and drove to the epicenter, near some small town I can’t recall, where the only damage was a few fallen cans in a supermarket. I swore I wouldn’t ever again make such a rookie mistake.

I also remember getting ready to leave the East Coast, and the worries I had about bringing my grandmother’s china, which I was sure a quake would smash to smithereens. In the end, I had packed it in plenty of padding and put it in the moving truck. After all, I figured that china in storage, unused, wasn’t so different from china smashed and unusable.

I’d learned by then about Quakehold!-brand museum putty, whose name quelled my anxiety and cemented my china security plans. I could stick it on the bottoms of breakables to affix them to surfaces so securely that even the shaking of the earth wouldn’t budge them. I bought a lot of the stuff. I had every intention of using it.

Until the day I went to the Venice bungalow of a friend of a friend, who was selling my husband a convertible.

As he and the woman talked numbers, I wandered over to the shelves that lined her living room’s back wall. They were filled with her large collection of snow globes, gathered from all over the world. My first thought was how funny it was to see these souvenirs that you shook to make snow in a place where snow almost never fell.

My second thought? That came after I reached for a globe.

I can’t remember now if the one I touched featured an Empire State Building or an Eiffel Tower or some spot less well known. What I will never forget is the realization that it wouldn’t budge because it had been Quakehold!-ed.

In a flash, this fact upended my thinking.

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The globes had been made to be shaken. That was their reason for being. Now the only time they could ever fulfill their purpose would be in an earthquake major enough to shake the whole house and them with it.

Sticking down the snow globes seemed to me to be an excess of caution. From then on, I threw mine to the wind. My Quakehold! putty sat forgotten in a cupboard. All over my house, unaffixed, I placed precious things that could break. It felt brave. It felt Californian.

It also felt strangely load-lifting for a person who can get overly sentimental about inanimate objects. I had come to California originally to write for the Philadelphia Inquirer. My predecessor in the job thought we should mark our transition with a ritual. So for fun, we went to Venice Beach and consulted various fortune tellers. One had me pull Tarot cards from an unusual set. I didn’t like the look of the black card that read “Nothingness,” and I said so.

“Not nothingness. No-thingness,” the fortune teller assured me, his long gray hair blowing in the ocean breeze. Freedom from the clutches of the material.

Maybe, I thought later, only half in jest, the right earthquake would come along one day and break enough of my baubles to edge me toward such enlightenment.

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Jenner Kim inspects his small storage facility, which was badly damaged by the magnitude 6.4 earthquake that hit Trona, Calif.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Ridgecrest, of course, is a reminder that disasters are no joke — that they take you by surprise and don’t give you makeup time to plan, that you can’t tell an earthquake what’s fine to destroy and what isn’t. It’s a reminder to treat living in a disaster-prone part of the world more seriously, even if that doesn’t mean being frozen by fear. It’s also a reminder that taking such precautions as sticking breakable things down isn’t about the things themselves as much as about our own safety.

So when I return home, I will strap down my bookcases and my TVs and my microwave. I might even break out some putty.

On a deeper level, I will accept that to live in California is to live with some degree of peril — and also to do our part to prepare for it.

On the night the 7.1-magnitude quake hit, I was mesmerized by what I saw on TV — but it wasn’t video of a crack in a road or a house fire that got me. It was Lucy Jones’ pluck and the many other examples that my fellow Californians were made of sturdy stuff — that they continued to watch the Dodgers when they felt the stadium shake, that they focused on the needs of others even in the face of their own needs.

On MSNBC, one Ridgecrest man who was directing traffic because the lights were out said his mobile home had just been destroyed. He’d stared at it and then set out to see what he could do to help his town.

That, I thought, is what being prepared — mentally and physically — for whatever may come our way is all about.

We need to be ready to help ourselves and each other.


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