If I Was a Powder Keg, Where Would I Be?


My friends from the Midwest and East-coast tell me I’m nuts. And those that live in California, tell me all the time that they live in perpetual fear of… “The Big One”. At first, confusion sets in and then I realize what we’re talking about and I feel much better.

Me: “Oh you mean an earthquake.”

Agitated Friend: “Hell yeah I mean an earthquake! Why aren’t you freaking out?”

Me: “Ah…why would I?”

Then the blank stare sets in. Total disbelief in my calm and composure. Perhaps it’s because I’m a fourth generation Californian that earthquakes don’t bother me. It also may be that as a child, I was witness to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, one of the largest shakers in recent memory. Plus, it’s in my blood (my great grandfather was in the great 1906 Earthquake). To me earthquakes are kind of like roller coasters frightening but fun. Also like roller coasters, if you’ve never been in one, you don’t know what I’m talking about.

You know what… maybe I am nuts. As I write this, I’m starting to think my friends might be right. Maybe I am crazy for not fearing the next big quake. Maybe this is how they felt on January 9th, 1857.

The year 1857 was an interesting time for California. The gold rush began only 9 years earlier and the state’s population was exploding, soon to include my great-great-grandfather who arrived only three years later (I told you, my family has been here for awhile). The year was only 9 days old when when an estimated 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck near Parkfield, CA, along the San Andreas fault. It would be know as the Great Fort Tejon Earthquake, named after the most densely populated (and as such, most damaged) area near the epicenter. People felt a 1-3 minute long seismic disturbance as far north as San Francisco and as far south as Mexico. This was a big one! However, the most frightening thing about it all was the fact that for several days preceding the main quake there were several sizable foreshocks.

What’s a foreshock? No, it’s not something men wear to regain what was lost from a circumcision (although that sounds like a money maker!), but a smaller earthquake on the same fault line leading up to the main seismic event. While it’s impossible to predict when an earthquake will happen, some earthquakes have been known to be accompanied by these foreshocks, and thus they can be a clear indicator that something larger might be coming. The ones that occurred in 1857 are believed to have been in the 5 and 6 point range on the Richter scale.

The quake was pretty big, too. In fact, it had done a decadent amount of damage and caused several injuries, including two fatalities. The fault slipped nearly 9 meters creating an enormous crack in the ground. Properties were destroyed and businesses were disrupted. Reports of trees having sunk into the ground went as far north as Sacramento. Large land fissures were reported all around Southern California, in addition to sand blows, a rare phenomenon associated with liquefaction areas around recent earthquakes. They’re also known as sand volcanoes. In addition to all that, the aftershocks continued for days and a few smaller quakes occurred on the fault up until 1860.

So what does this all have to do with “The Big One”? Well, since the 1860 the San Andreas fault has remained dormant and extremely quiet. Too quiet. Some researchers suggest the next big earthquake along that line of the fault could happen at anytime, while others are more reluctant to make such claims. They do agree on one thing, however. A big earthquake is due on that part of the San Andreas fault line sometime in the next few decades.

So what’s the moral of the story?

We on the West Coast have become complacent about earthquakes. Too many these days think much the same way I do. What’s the big deal? We live in a modern industrialized world. Yet if shaker like the one in 1857 were to happen today, the damage to the area would be disastrous. Millions would be without power, water, or gas. There would be billions of dollars in damages, not to mention the potential for the loss of human life.

I’m not saying we need to subscribe to the Chicken Little monthly newsletter, but I’d rather be prepared in case something does happen. Do you have an earthquake kit? Chances are if you live on the West Coast, you should. A lot of people I know are prepared. Do you think my friends in the Midwest have tornado kits, and my pals on the East Coast have Hurricane kits, you bet your ass they do.

So now that I’m more enlightened, lets reply the scenario from earlier.

Me: “Oh you mean an earthquake.”

Agitated Friend: “Hell yeah I mean an earthquake! Why aren’t you freaking out?”

Me: “Because I have my earthquake kit. Do you have one?”

Check this out if you don’t have one.





Featured Image Credit: “Aerial photo of the San Andreas Fault in the Carrizo Plain“, Ikluft

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