7.1 quake changes our face, not our fabric

Residents rally as massive shakers draw the eyes of the world

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

7.1 quake changes our  face, not our fabricCapturing the impact of high-magnitude earthquakes on our remote desert community is like viewing aftershocks plotted on a map — it’s difficult to zero in on even the largest focal points without seeing the cascade of overlapping ripples blossoming around them.

Two weeks after historic earthquakes rattled the Indian Wells and Searles Valley communities, damages are still being assessed, implications analyzed and heroes unveiled. But it may be years before the whole story unfolds. Here’s what we know so far:

On July 4, at 10:33 a.m., a 6.4-magnitude earthquake hit Searles Valley about halfway between Ridgecrest and Trona. It was the largest earthquake to shake California in more than 20 years.

Media from all over the country descended — many struggling to find dramatic representations to adequately depict the historic quake.

As Ridgecrest Police Chief Jed McLaughlin would later put it “the damage is internal” — not just the messes inside our homes and offices, but the pervasive anxiety that would plague thousands.

But at that time, no related fatalities were discovered. No significant damages to public infrastructure were uncovered. Only minimal injuries and disruptions in services were reported. The prevailing sentiments of those interviewed appeared to vacillate between stunned confusion and determined perseverance.

McLaughlin took command of the incident, coordinating with literally thousands from across the country from his station conference room. Mutual aid flooded in from first responders across Southern California. Other government agencies included a team of geophysicists, which would turn out to play a critical role in the response, came to offer assistance and advice.

Ridgecrest Regional Hospital CEO Jim Suver transferred patients as a precaution.

Business owners and residents began picking up the pieces of their rattled properties and checking in with their friends neighbors. Utility companies were able to restore lost services relatively quickly.

Elected officials flew in to survey the damage and offer assistance.

Hundreds of aftershocks followed the event, and Californians closely monitored the media as experts, and amateurs, speculated on the likelihood of a follow-up. The odds of another significant event were pegged at 5 percent or less.

Less than 36 hours later, that odds-beating kickback came in the form of a 7.1-magnitude quake — an episode that dwarfed the deadly 1989 Oakland and 1994 Northridge earthquakes in force.

While the physical, mental and emotional impacts of this second quake were evident, witnesses still marveled at our comparative resiliency in the grips of a quake six times more violent than its predecessor.

Subsequent days would reveal that the quake killed at least one Nevada man, who was believed to be pinned beneath his vehicle while working on it during the 6.4. Scores of families in the Ridgecrest area were displaced by homes rendered unliveable by the quake.

In Trona, circumstances were even worse. On top of devastating home damages, residents were left without power and water for days and temporarily stranded by highway damage. Even after roads were repaired, many lacked the resources to get to shelter in the nearby Ridgecrest community.

Now, the good news. Many humanitarian and government agencies were on the ground before the 7.1 hit. Hundreds of EMS and utility workers patrolled neighborhoods — knocking on doors, checking on public welfare and offering assistance. Kitchens and shelters were set up to serve the impacted community members and the first-responders who worked tirelessly to protect them.

Damage reports trickling in shared a common theme — the destruction is there, but it could have been worse. Much, much worse.

Some credit this to the relatively modern construction, particularly in Ridgecrest, and the lack of high-rise buildings or lofty public edifices.

Others credit the ongoing drills, trainings and updates coordinated through RPD. In a 2017, the News Review conducted an interview addressing disaster preparedness with Kern County Emergency Services Manager Georgianna Armstrong — who pointed to Ridgecrest as a model for readiness.

“The Indian Wells Valley has done remarkable work. Anchored by the Ridgecrest Police Department, your community leads the way in disaster preparedness. Yours is by far the most active, mature group in the entire county,” said Armstrong.

McLaughlin shares that credit with former police officer Robert OBergfell, who helped found the hub of volunteers who meet monthly to coordinate preparedness efforts.

Others credit the superlative response by our first responders to the fact that — unlike most metropolitan communities in California — our EMS personnel live in the same community they serve.

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood further cited close ties to inter-county agencies and the leadership of McLaughlin. “Any other chief would have said ‘Take this!’” Instead of ceding control, McLaughlin operated an incident command that saw scores of agencies from every service and level of government.

“I said ‘I think you’ve got this,’” said Youngblood. “And he did. He absolutely had this.”

Remember that connection with the geology team? That might have also helped.

In an interview with a New York-based television station, USGS geophysicist Ken Hodnut talked about the role he and Janice Hernandez of the California Geological Survey played in communicating the risk of follow-on quakes to local officials.

“We have to document data on the ground as quickly as possible after the earthquake,” said Timothy Dawson, senior engineering geologist with CGS.

“That’s why CGS and USGS mobilized virtually all the geologists and scientists we had on staff — to get out and start measuring offsets.”

Hodnut reported that the greatest vertical offset measured was 12 feet, with the greatest horizontal offset measuring 9 feet.

“These features are in soft sediment — dirt, basically — and they erode very quickly,” said Dawson. “The ability to capture those measurements of the displacement in the surface goes away with the next rain storm.”

These measurements feed into the fault-displacement models, which in turn informs hazard assessments for structures built near faults. But the data can also be used in the equations that help forecast earthquakes.

Hodnut said that these endeavors focus on an academic, rather than a practical, understanding of seismology.

“What ended up happening in Ridgecrest was my interactions with the Navy and the city after the 6.4 led to some very good questions from leadership,” said Hodnut.

“McLaughlin started getting me thinking about what might happen next, and it pushed me into a zone where I started considering the historical examples we have learned from.

“I think that was essential to how it all worked out in giving everyone a heads-up. If McLaughlin had not been prompting me, I don’t know if it would have happened the way it did.”

With the understanding that another high-magnitude incident could be coming, EMS were able to brace for the next impact.

What happened next motivated the community to adopt phrases like “shaken, not stirred,” acknowledging the shock of the incident as well as our ability to bounce back from it.

Since July 4, more than 10,000 after shocks have rumbled through the region — including more than half a dozen registering 5 and higher, and dozens of 4s.

Dr. Lucy Jones — a former USGS employee and current Caltech research associate who has developed a following based on her ability to translate inscrutable scientific principles to the general public — says that this is the normal Californians should get used to.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Ridgecrest was temporarily famous for being the “Earthquake Capital of the World.” (Remember the Sony commercial in the 1990s?) In the ensuing years, the tremors that were normal during that era have largely died down, leading to what some are referring to as “earthquake amnesia.”

Amid Dr. Jones’ reassurances that this level of seismic activity is typical following such an event, she also cautioned residents to adapt to this new status quo. She is joined by state leaders — including Gov. Gavin Newsom, who visited us on July 6 — who affirm that just as earthquakes are a part of our history, they will be a part of our future.

In the coming weeks, the News Review will revisit the subject of preparedness, while examining economic impacts and lessons-learned from the most recent events.

Inside, we share critical information for those in active recovery from the recent quakes and explore some of the trends that surfaced in the days that followed.

But like the aftershocks, we expect these stories and updates to keep coming for the foreseeable future.

Pictured: USGS and CGS scientists pose at a 12-foot vertical offset formed after the 7.1-magnitude earthquake — Courtesy photo

Story First Published: 2019-07-19