February 16, 2018

On Wondering When 'The Big One' Will Hit

By Shustov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

"Are you afraid of earthquakes?"

I was having lunch with a friend from New York City who I hadn't seen in probably 15 or more years. Now that he's moved to LA, too, we have lots to talk about.

And questions like these inevitably come up.

"I'm not afraid of 'The Big One' per se," I told him, "but I'm afraid of how people will react in the aftermath."

The stuff of my nightmares is the run on gas, the traffic jams, looting, and generalized mass hysteria. The actions of others feel so beyond my control.

I did, however, have one clarification to make: "I'm afraid of an earthquake happening and me not being home with my cat. I'm really afraid of my cat being home alone during a big earthquake."

Unfortunately, unless I become a shut-in, there's nothing I can do about that.

I approach our seismic precariousness with a fair amount of scientific interest and healthy skepticism. I've explored the San Andreas Fault in more than one section. I've seen firsthand how past earthquakes can ravage buildings, landscapes, and roadways.

I have, in some way or another, walked in the historical path of destruction of Long Beach, Sylmar, Landers, Whittier, and more.

So, the threat of a geological, geophysical, seismological event on a massive scale is pretty real to me. My lack of fear doesn't come out of ignorance.

Or does it?

We know very well that we're overdue for an earthquake whose magnitude is at the upper end of the Richter Scale.

The last one of that category to hit Southern California was on January 17, 1994 at 4:30 a.m.

Although the epicenter of that one was located in the San Fernando Valley community of Reseda (technically Los Angeles), it was dubbed the Northridge Earthquake.

It occurred along a previously unknown fault, also later dubbed the Northridge blind thrust fault.

Most of the twisted wreckage from nearly a quarter-century ago has been cleared—except in one place, where it's been turned into sculptural art as a memorial for the victims of the earthquake.

That's on the campus of California State University, Northridge (CSUN), where the Lauretta Wasserstein Earthquake Sculpture Garden pays tribute to the destruction and devastation that hit a little too close to home (about a mile from the epicenter).

All the buildings on the campus had been damaged by the Northridge earthquake.

Those that weren't brought down by the initial jolt and aftershocks erupted into a fiery (and sometimes toxic) blaze.

And yet artist Marjorie Berkson Sievers (a CSUN alum) and landscape architect Paul Lewis managed to see beauty in the rubble...

...converting disembodied columns, pillars, stairs, and walls (mostly from a collapsed parking structure) into a kind of artificial reef for nature to twist itself around...

...vines to crawl through...

...and plants to inhabit.

Of course, the damage brought on by the Northridge earthquake wasn't isolated to the West Valley—it stretched for 85 miles. But to really grasp what happened in the middle of the night in January 1994, you've got to go back to Northridge and look at some of that rubble.

That is, until something similar happens again.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Facing Our Faults
These Tremors of the Night
In Search of the Epicenter
One of Many Firsts: Earthquake

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