E is for Earthquakes


 I was married once — in San Francisco. I haven’t seen her for many years. The great earthquake and fire in 1906 destroyed the marriage certificate. There’s no legal proof. Which proves that earthquakes aren’t all bad.

~ W.C. Fields

Since we’re on the subject of droughts and other natural disasters, it’s probably good to broach the subject of earthquakes, too, as it might become the pink elephant in the room/of this alphabet. Naturally, everyone fears earthquakes but without the shifting of tectonic plates, California would have never existed. This phenomenon goes back to the ancient continent of Pangaea which fell apart into several pieces and thus formed a jigsaw puzzle around the earth.


Long before dinosaurs roamed the American continent, the coast of western North America ended near Nevada. California didn’t exist yet but was a foaming ocean in which islands emerged now and then. These islands have also been mapped on really old maps. One of these islands was mentioned in Las Sergas de Esplandian (1508) and was named California, a utopian paradise of steep cliffs, rocks and tan Amazonian women. The last part was probably made up, as many stories were about unexplored parts of the world, commonly known as terra incognita. The question, however, is this: how could these island groups form what is now the third largest state of the US?

Without making this into too scientific of a story, I can tell you there was a landmass (Sonomia) which attached itself to Nevada 250 million years ago. This coming together, i.e. the pushing and pulling of geological forces and plates, formed the Sierra Nevadas, a mountain range that is still growing and evolving. This effect can be made visible by taking a table cloth which one pushes from opposite ends of the table to the middle of the table. The folds form the mountains and in between you’ll find the valleys. With every new earthquake, the land moves, sometimes millimeters or centimeters but during really big earthquakes, the land can move meters.

Most of the earthquakes on the West Coast we don’t even feel, yet annually, there are about half a million earthquakes here. According to geologists, chances are high that, in millions of years, the so-called Salinas landmass (including San Diego, LA, Big Sur and Santa Cruz) will move north and attach itself to San Francisco, due to the very active San Andreas fault line which runs parallel to the California coast. The emergence of California during which large parts of the North American plate nailed itself onto the mainland was described for the first time (and as late as) 1970, in the American magazine Nature.

The shift which took place during the big earthquake of 1906 (7.7 on the Richter scale) and which transformed San Francisco into a moon landscape of death, destruction and fires, was responsible for a movement of no less than six meters. Even in Germany, one felt a jolt at the time. At that point, about a million people lived in San Francisco, 3000 of which died in the disaster.

Thomas Jefferson Chase, who worked in the Ferry Building at the time, wrote that the early morning of April 18th, 1906, (5:18 AM) started clear and pretty. When he walked outside to get a bite to eat and was halfway down Howard, on the western side of First Street, he heard a rumbling in the distance. The noise was coming from the West. And then it hit. Electricity cables and cable car cables snapped like threads, falling down like hissing snakes. Buildings on First Street and Howard collapsed like houses of cards, with people trapped inside. An aftershock was felt, which was worse than the first one. Chase fell into the street and saw how the stones of the street popped out like corn in a hot pan.

Enrico Caruso, the well-known opera singer, who, the night before, had been performing in Carmen, woke up in the Palace Hotel and was shaking in his bed as if the hotel had turned into a ship that was surprised by a storm. As he wandered to his bedroom window, plaster from the ceiling rained down on his head like hail.

In less than three minutes, San Francisco was changed into a chaos of debris and fires.

“San Francisco is gone,” Jack London wrote three weeks later in the magazine Collier’s  (May 5th, 1906): all that was left, was a few houses on the outskirts. Everything else (factories, warehouses, shops, hotels and the mansions of the elite) was flattened. Above it, there was a ton of dust and smoke from the fires which could be seen for days and miles away.

People thought that this would be the last big earthquake and that it had released the pressure once and for all, and because of that, people quickly started with the rebuilding of the city which would become even prettier than the original. Some say it’s the most beautiful city in North America but this city teeters on one of the most active fault lines in the world. Clearly, beauty and vulnerability come together in a city like San Fran.

Now that we know more about earthquakes, San Francisco has gone out of its way to build in preparation of the next one: friends of mine, who experienced the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 (6.9 on the Richter scale), told me that, while they were inside skyscrapers in downtown San Francisco, the buildings waved like bamboo stalks in the wind, but… they didn’t collapse.

The best place to be in an earthquake is outside (but do watch out for falling objects or rocks). The redwood trees of which we have so many in Calfornia, or pyramid-structures are the most earthquake proof. For the same reason, one builds with mostly wood in California, because wood (as opposed to brick/stone) is flexible and thus may not break or implode.

The most dangerous places for an earthquake in the Bay Area are not so much the Bay Bridge, the metro system Bart or the Golden Gate, but the many highways which rest on raised concrete, sometimes consisting of several levels; these constructions change into pudding during heavy shaking, or they pancake which happened to the Cypress Street Viaduct of Interstate 880 in West Oakland during Loma Prieta.


After Loma Prieta, the extensive damage was anything but a deterrent to rebuild: the exclusive marina area of San Francisco, which was hit hardest, was quickly rebuilt and a year after the earthquake, real estate prices in the marina had gone down a mere 10%. Just like Dutch people who don’t lose any sleep at night over the rising sea levels, San Franciscans are not intimidated by the shaking of the ground they walk on and do business on. Few people buy the very expensive earthquake insurance, and even fewer decide against buying a house that is located near, or god forbid, built on top of a fault line.

Because we live close to the active Hayward fault line, I have experienced several earthquakes since moving to Northern California in 1999. Our house, made of wood, will groan and creak, and strangely enough, every earthquake feels differently. Sometimes it’s a sudden jolt, sometimes it’s a wave and most of the time it’s as if the earth belches or has a sudden hiccup. If you happen to look outside and can see the horizon, it may seem like the horizon shifted for a moment. A painting may fall from the wall, the water in your pool (which we don’t have) may show some more waves and every time, you discover new cracks in the walls and floors of your house. It happens before you know it, so usually you don’t even have the time to run outside or find a safe place. Living near a fault line, or living in California in general, means reconciling yourself with leaning walls, doors that suddenly stick and uneven floors: it’s fact of life in a state where the soil just wants to dance to the rhythm of moving fault lines.

I once met a man in North Carolina who told me Californians would be punished with a huge earthquake, in which the entire state would disappear into the sea and people who have cabins in the Sierras, or deeper inland, would suddenly be blessed with an ocean view. That, he implied, would be the punishment for living our decadent Left Coast lifestyles. I smiled. Should I have told him that geologists have been claiming that a big earthquake on the East Coast has been long overdue and may well happen before we have another big one on the West Coast?

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