Mornings are rough – especially Mondays. But today, we had a little extra incentive to get out of bed, thanks to a 4.4 magnitude quake that hit around 6:30 A.M., causing our entire house to shake like a Jell-o mold on a plate.

Once the shaking was over, I popped out of bed to check on my daughter, who was still under the covers, but — miraculously — awake. (I guess all it takes is the equivalent of 43 metric tons of dynamite to jolt her out of her teenage slumber.)

“Was that an earthquake?” she asked.

Oh yes, it was. There’s nothing else that feels like that. But – despite what some of my friends are posting on Facebook, this one wasn’t very large at all, although I know it must have felt gigantic to those whose homes were closer to the epicenter. Up where I live, I barely noticed the initial jolt — just the shaking, which can be frightening enough when you’re still half asleep. Even more so when it dredges up memories of earthquakes past.

The 1971 Sylmar quake also struck around 6:00 in the morning. My bed in the room I shared with my sister was next to the wall, and I reacted to the shaking by burrowing as close to that wall as I could, for protection. On the other hand, my brave sister rode out the shaking by reaching out and steadying the antique lamp we inherited from our grandmother, which was perched on the nightstand between our two beds. That lamp is on my nightstand now, thanks to her.

The Sylmar quake was a 6.6 and we were extremely lucky: Our family was supposed to move that week, and (aside from that lamp) most of our breakables were safely packed in boxes. We didn’t lose anything that day — but we did have to evacuate, thanks to a crack in a reservoir in the hills above the Valley. We were among the hundreds of thousands of people living in the path of the ensuing flood, if the dam had burst.

There was no flood. Water was pumped out of the dam and five days later, we were back at home rescheduling that move.

The neighborhood I live in now is right next to that dam that nearly failed in 1971, and I think of it every time I pass. We’re a couple of miles south of Sylmar – and a couple of miles east of Northridge, the site of the second large-ish earthquake I remember living through.

Damage from Northridge quake

Photo copyright 1994-2014 Gareth Mills

The 1994 Northridge quake was just a tenth of a point larger on the Richter scale, but those points are increased exponentially. Northridge felt a lot worse than Sylmar: When it struck around 4:00 AM on January 17, no amount of burrowing next to the wall could protect me. Our little apartment shook so much that our bed actually moved three feet from the wall, with us still in it.

Again, we were lucky. Once the sun came up and we began cleaning up the mess, we discovered that our only real damage was to a cheap bookcase that shook so much that the sides came off (leaving the books holding up the shelves!) But across the street from us was a building where the second story pancaked on top of its carport. The residents survived, but their apartments were lost — as well as their vehicles.

This morning’s little wake-up call from Mother Nature is a reminder that the price for living in this region with our beautiful mountains and lovely canyons is that we also live with the earthquakes that created this kind of topography. And the fact that nobody died in today’s minor 4.4 temblor is another reminder: Earthquakes don’t kill people. Shoddy construction does. Each major quake in California’s history yielded new information that our scientists and engineers have used to make our buildings safer. I know a lot of people complain about the cost of doing business in California due to what they perceive as too much regulation. In the case of earthquake zones, those regulations save lives. If you live in a house that was constructed after Sylmar, you’re pretty safe. And if it was built after Northridge, you’re even safer.

My 1961 ranch house predates both of those quakes, but was in the intersection of their footprints — ¬†and survived. I take some comfort in that.


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