Fifty years after the San Fernando earthquake, are we more prepared?

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Fifty years ago, millions of people in Southern California were violently jolted awake by a 6.6 magnitude earthquake. The San Fernando earthquake, or Sylmar quake as it’s also called, killed 64 people, injured thousands more, and caused more than $500 million worth of damage.

“The San Fernando earthquake led to more policy changes than probably any other earthquake that we’ve had,” says Dr. Lucy Jones, a Southern California-based seismologist and author. “It sparked new building codes and retrofitting regulations, and led to the Alquist-Priolo Earthquake Fault Zoning Act, which was signed into California law in 1972 and prevents building structures on an active fault.

“When the San Andreas does finally go, there won’t be big buildings ripped apart because they’re straddling the fault,” says Jones.

The earthquake also led to major changes in how and where LA’s water supply is stored. The Van Norman Dam partially collapsed in the 1971 quake, forcing 80,000 people to evacuate. That close call caused the LA Department of Water and Power to rethink its water supply. The agency is currently completing the Headworks Reservoir, a pair of concrete reservoirs near Burbank that are meant to sustain heavy shaking and provide city residents with drinking water on LA’s side of the San Andreas Fault.

But despite building code changes and infrastructure improvements, Jones says preparing for “the big one” still comes down to something simple: getting to know your neighbors.

“You should worry more about living after the earthquake than dying in it,” she says. 

For example, you could lose water and power or your home could be uninhabitable. “If you’ve got friends to turn to that you can do things together, you’re far more likely to get through the event without despair.”

She says the pandemic has shown us how easy it is to be isolated, but also how nice it can feel to interact with and help those living nearby.

“I’m connecting with my neighbors more now than I did before. How about building on that to be ready for the earthquake?”