Earthquakes and Nightmares

March 6th, 2010

The recent earthquakes bring back memories of some nightmares I have had through the years. They began when I was eleven years old and persisted until October 17, 1989, at 5:04 p.m. Maybe not actual nightmares but extreme anxiety caused by a vivid imagination.

In August of 1934 we arrived in Long Beach California. Daddy drove through town and straight onto the Rainbow Pier so we could see the ocean for the first time. Even though I was old enough to know better, I was disappointed that I couldn’t see China. My sister, Mary, was crying because she thought he was going to drive right out into the water, the biggest water she had ever seen.  He reluctantly drove into town. We found Mama’s brother Bill Reagan and his wife Myrtle who lived in a small cottage near the water. After greetings and something to eat we bundled up with our blankets on the living room floor.

Communication in those days was face to face or by letters. The stories Uncle Bill had to tell were too long for letters, so we listened for hours about the 6.4 earthquake that struck Long Beach at 5:55 pm, March 10, 1933.

The epicenter was offshore, southeast of Long Beach on the Newport-Inglewood Fault. Forty million dollars property damage resulted, and 115 lives were lost. Many of these fatalities occurred as people ran out of buildings and were hit by falling debris. The major damage occurred in the thickly settled district from Long Beach to the industrial section south of Los Angeles, where unfavorable geological conditions (made land, water-soaked alluvium) combined with poor structural work to increase the damage. At Long Beach, buildings collapsed, water tanks fell through roofs, and houses displaced on foundations. School buildings were among those structures most generally and severely damaged. The earthquake eliminated all doubts regarding the need for earthquake resistant design for structures in California. So many school buildings were damaged that the Field Act was passed by the California State Legislature on April 10 1933. The Field Act mandated that school buildings must be earthquake-resistant. If the earthquake had occurred during school hours, the death toll would have been much higher. (wikipedia)

Those are the basic facts. Pictures I have found on the web look as devastating as the pictures we see today of Haiti and Chili. I will try to snag a few. Uncle Bill filled in the details along with fierce admonitions to us children about how to behave in case of an earthquake. “Don’t run out and be hit by debris.”  “Wherever you are always know where the safest place would be in case of an earthquake, usually a doorway.” “Avoid buildings built of bricks.” etc.

This was solid advice and I pass it on to you. It has flavored my whole life. Here are some examples. The way to my school was several blocks long and then across a bridge and then a few more blocks. I could shorten the trip if I walked through a narrow alley between the walls of two brick buildings. I avoided this shortcut unless I was late and then I would gather my courage together, take a deep breath and moving as fast as I could I would run through the block long alley. What a relief to arrive safely at the other end. You would think that this would strengthen me for another time, but actually it meant that I was just lucky this time and that the odds were now against me.

School buildings had been severely damaged, collapsed completely, or judged unsafe to enter. School has always been a happy place for me as I like to learn and in those days I felt safe in the tents pitched on wooden platforms. This time was also depression time and the WPA made possible the opportunity to be entertained by a symphony orchestra as well as other performers. We had no auditorium for the assemblies so they took place in an open air courtyard.

My uncle had a great many stories that were told in great detail and of course the most dramatic ones were repeated over and over. That is when my worries began. He assured us over and over that we were living in earthquake country and we should expect and be prepared for the big one. In California we have many small tremors on a regular basis but the common knowledge was that there would be a big one. Even after we moved to the north we were still in earthquake country and the big one was sure to come. When I was a grown up married woman and we were at a movie or other event, if I looked around and saw that the walls were brick, I would start to panic. If it were not possible to leave, I would spend the time expecting calamity at any minute.

So the years moved on and I worried about earthquakes. When the ground would begin to quiver I would stand in a doorway and wonder if it was going to be the big one. We all became experts at judging the intensity. Then came October 17, 1989. I grabbed a stair banister to keep from falling and when the shaking ended I judged it to be the big one I had been waiting for. As tension was relieved on the fault line that day, my stress about earthquakes disappeared. I know more will come but somehow that edge of fear is gone and more than that I seem to have lost my ability to judge the intensity of a tremor. Although I used to feel the smallest of shakes, now most of them happen without my noticing. However I need to say I avoid the tall buildings in San Francisco even though they are supposedly built to withstand very great shocks.

©Patricia Grube
February 28, 2010