Category Archives: Disasters


Back in November, our area of California (among others) burned. The fires came within a half mile of our house.

Now the next part of the cycle comes, with the winter rains and a possible El Nino year dumping higher than normal amounts of rain on California, causing mud slides, flooding, rock slides, and other problems in the burn areas as they’re no longer protected by vegetation.

But it’s amazing how quickly the hills can turn from black to green again.

The contrast can be stark and vivid. Parts of the hillsides can still be black as night, burnt, and charred, while patches or even whole mountainsides are an almost iridescent green.

These pictures, taken along the 101 Freeway between Camarillo and Woodland Hills (my son was driving, so I got to take pictures yesterday) show other damage such as this, where rock slides have caused temporary barriers to be put up and lanes closed.

I don’t know what causes this phenomenon where the new growth is in a mottled or spider-web like pattern across the blackened hillside. You can see the burnt bushes and trees everywhere, but the green undergrowth along the ground has started to be re-established.

Just a few hundred yards way, the entire hillside is iridescent green, with the black stumps of the bushes sticking up through it.

This is how the cycle continues. As green as it is now, this brush will grow up and over the summer will spend nine months turning brown and highly flammable.

This might go on for ten years or more, the brush and weeds growing thicker during the winter months, green for a few weeks, and then drying up and turning brown in April and May, finally baking itself into tinder by July.

It’s the same with all of these trees – most of them will grow back and become lush again, just waiting for the next brush fired to come through, when they’ll turning into flaming torches, their leaves and branches burning, breaking, and being blown for miles in the high winds, starting new spot fires ahead of the main fire, spreading it faster than a person can run.

That’s the cycle – burn, regrow, dry out, burn again.

Welcome to California. We don’t know what will try to kill you this year – the earthquakes, the fires, the floods, or the mudslides.

Down here in the lower elevations, it’s unlikely to be a blizzard or hurricane.

But wait for it. That could be coming soon as the climate changes unpredictably.

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Twenty-Five Years Ago Tonight – Beyond The Aftermath

Two nights ago I described how we lived through the Northridge earthquake twenty-five years ago. We were less than five miles from the epicenter of a 6.7M quake, the largest in the Los Angeles area in over 160 years. 57 people died, over 8,700 people were injured, and the damage estimates range all the way up to $50B. We survived the initial shaking, everyone safe but full of adrenaline, and then checked the house for damage.

Last night I talked about the first few days after the earthquake, dealing with all of the utilities being out for days and starting to pick up the pieces. (Literally.)

The weeks and months after the earthquake were a different sort of hell from the first five minutes and the first five days. The first five minutes was a sprint through terror and adrenaline. The first five days was a couple of laps through a whole new world, finally ending in a modicum of normalcy returning as the utilities returned. The weeks and months afterward were an ultramarathon through that new world, realizing in many ways that it wouldn’t ever quite be the same.

There were aftershocks. Damn, I hate aftershocks. Just about the time your subconscious had forgotten to be terrified and on the edge of your seat 24/7, usually right about the time you dared to actually think, “Hey, it’s been a few days since we had a really good aftershock,” then that of course was when one would hit. Even the little ones could do that – it’s amazing how little shaking you need to get triggered while suffering through that particular form of PTSD.

Beyond that were the simple but omnipresent, pain in the ass, nagging inconveniences. It just wore you down.

There was debris everywhere. Almost everyone for miles and miles had some damage to their house or a cinder block wall that was down. An entire county, an area the size of a mid-sized state, all at once started piling tons of brick, wood, insulation, dirt, drywall, toilets, water heaters, and every other sort of construction material out on the curb. There were piles of debris for months, and as soon as the city swept through the neighborhood and picked it all up then new piles started.

On top of that, you couldn’t get there from here. The 10 Freeway through the heart of town from Santa Monica to Downtown had dozens of bridges that had collapsed or were unsafe. The original estimates were that it was going to take decades to get them all fixed. (To the credit of the mayor, governor, and everyone else involved, they did it in something on the order of a year – it was an amazing accomplishment.) A major overpass on the 118 Freeway had collapsed, blocking both the 118 and the 5 Freeways. Trying to get into the Antelope Valley was a nightmare for years afterward. The 5 Freeway, which is THE major artery between Los Angeles and Northern California, was blocked for weeks.

And yet…

Time moves on. Bridges and houses and schools and hospitals and office buildings do finally get repaired. Debris gets hauled off.

And people forget. They stop thinking of preparation for the next time. They are too busy to keep in mind that as bad as this was, it wasn’t “the Big One.” So preparation and preparedness becomes lax again.

We keep our bugout bags. Just in case.

We keep water and dry food stocked. Just in case.

I keep clothes and shoes and flashlights by my bed where I can find them. Just in case.

But it won’t be enough.

When “the Big One” hits, the power and water and gas and won’t be out for four or five days. It will be out for four or five months, if not longer.

The gas stations won’t be dark and dry for a week. They’ll be empty and useless for months.

The ATMs won’t be out of order for a few days. The grocery stores won’t be shuttered for a few days. The schools and offices won’t be closed for a week.

There won’t be 57 dead – there will be 5,000+ dead. Or 25,000+. Or 50,000+.

There won’t be 8,700 injured, there will be 100,000+. With very few hospitals, doctors, nurses, or other facilities left standing for a hundred miles.

There won’t be a dozen fires and buildings burning as they’re still shaking and collapsing. There will be thousands. (Look at the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.)

It might happen tonight. It might happen in 100 years. There’s no way to predict, no way to know, no way to warn.

But they’re working on warning. The City of Los Angeles just released a free phone app that has the potential to give a few seconds of warning. It’s technology that’s used in Japan and other places, based on the fact that different types of energy released by an earthquake travels at different speeds through the earth. Before the major shaking arrives, low-frequency sound waves have traveled much faster and give an opportunity to sound the warning that the shaking is coming.

If you’re sitting on top of the epicenter, you don’t get any warning. It all happens at once. But if the San Andreas Fault cuts loose out by Palmdale, people in the San Fernando Valley might have ten seconds of warning, those in Downtown or Santa Monica get fifteen seconds, those in Long Beach and Orange County get thirty or forty seconds. (Don’t quote me on the times – I’m discussing the concept as I understand it, not the math as CalTech calculates it.)

Fifteen seconds might not sound like much, until you think about where you might be and what you might be doing. Elevators can be programmed to respond to an alert by stopping at the nearest floor and opening up. Surgeons can be alerted to stop cutting and brace for the quake. People in offices and homes have precious seconds to shut off the stove, or get away from the big, breakable windows, or get under the big, solid desk. Drivers have a chance to slow down or stop and to get out from underneath that overpass that might collapse on them, or off that bridge that might collapse out from under them.

When “the Big One” comes, we won’t be inconvenienced for a few days or a couple of weeks or months like we were twenty-five years ago. We’ll be facing the possibility of being refugees, the only option for many of us being to move to another part of the country and start over. But for many of us, with the use of some better technology, we’ll live to be refugees instead of being casualties. And if we all take responsibility for being better prepared and doing those little things that we usually ignore, we’ll not only survive but be able to recover far more quickly when (not if) the Big One hits.

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Twenty-Five Years Ago Tonight – The Aftermath

The aftermath to me can be summed up in one word – “aftershocks.”

Last night I described how we lived through the Northridge earthquake twenty-five years ago. We were less than five miles from the epicenter of a 6.7M quake, the largest in the Los Angeles area in over 160 years. 57 people died, over 8,700 people were injured, and the damage estimates range all the way up to $50B. We survived the initial shaking, everyone safe but full of adrenaline, and then checked the house for damage.

The aftershocks started almost immediately. There was a 6.0M aftershock less than a minute later, while I was with Janet and the kids in the relative safety of the hallway that connected all of the bedrooms in that end of the house. Another came later that same day in the early afternoon.

The size and magnitude of the aftershocks faded with time, but there were still aftershocks big enough to be felt (and startling) several years later. The first day there were dozens and dozens of M5 aftershocks, a week later there were M5 aftershocks every couple of days, a year later they occurred every couple of months. But they still kept occurring.

Immediately after the quake, when we inspected the house and got in touch with our neighbors, it was really dark. We’re used to being in a city that’s light polluted so that even in a “dark” neighborhood you’re lucky to see Orion in the sky at that time of year. But that’s the thing about light pollution. If you pull the big plug and shut off every light in an area roughly the size of Iowa, that light pollution leaves the area at 286,000 miles per second. (Remember, it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law!)

There’s a story that says some people who later reached the police, 9-1-1, and CalTech asked about the weird, bizarre lights in the sky, thinking they were some kind of side effect of the earthquake. Some people think it apocryphal – I think it’s true. I think that in the midst of this disaster at 04:31 in the morning, twenty million Angelenos went outside and for the first time in their entire lives SAW THE STARS IN A DARK SKY.

There’s a tiny bit of wonderful in a giant, economy sized, gargantuan pile of This Sucks!

All utilities were out. For days.

I don’t remember exactly, but I think it was about three to four days (it might have been five) before the electricity came back on. I remember it coming back on in the middle of the night because the lights came on and woke me up. We were all sleeping in that hallway still, due to the aftershocks.

I think the water came back on in three or four days as well. I realized somewhere along the line that we wouldn’t really know when the water came back on, so I turned on the tap in the kitchen. When the water came back, we heard it running in there.

The gas was also off for several days. We just checked the stove periodically after resetting the earthquake valve on the gas meter, which had worked like a champ.

Oddly enough, I remember the phones (land line – I don’t remember if I had a cell phone yet at that point) were back on inside of a day. That was good since it let us contact family and reassure them that we were safe.

We spent the first day just cleaning up. There were broken dishes, spoiled food, etc. We had a barbecue that still worked just fine, so we cooked up what frozen hamburgers and stuff that we had for the first day. We were pretty well off so far as having a decent supply of water, soda, and so on, as well as dry cereal, crackers, nuts, and so on.

School was out for a week or more.

I don’t remember if I went back to my office that week (remember, the quake was in the early hours of Monday) or the following week, but it was a mess. My office at the time was in Encino, about 15 miles from the epicenter, but it was up on the 4th floor of a huge six story office complex, so it had swayed and bounced quite a bit. We couldn’t get into my office at all due to the large bookcases inside that had tipped over, smashed the desk, and blocked the door. We ended up having to pop up the suspended ceiling tiles and climb up and over into the office in order to clear the door.

It also made clear why you duck and cover and get under something heavy (like that desk) in a quake. If I had been there during the quake and not able to get under the desk in time I would have experienced serious injuries or worse.

But the fun was just starting.


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Twenty-Five Years Ago Tonight

January 16, 1994.

I don’t remember a lot of details about the evening, but no doubt it was very similar to tonight. The kids were all in grade school, none yet over the age of ten. It was a Sunday night, but Monday would have been Martin Luther King Jr Day, so it was probably a school holiday. (To be honest, I would have to go look to see if MLK Day was a LA Unified School District holiday then. That’s a weird thought.)

At that age the kids would have all been in bed by 8:00 or 8:30. For all I know I might have been watching the Australian Open, much like I am tonight. I don’t remember what we had for dinner, or if I did the dishes and loaded the dishwasher, if I was doing laundry that evening, or any other details.

There was no reason to remember any of them. It was just another Sunday night in mid-January.

Until 4:31 AM on Monday morning, January 17, 1994.

I remember jolting awake with the first strong shock. If you’ve lived in earthquake country for any length of time and felt one of the “little” ones we get, you learn to react, even if you’re asleep. I woke up to the shock, immediately knew it was an earthquake, adrenaline pumping, and waited for half a second.

It’s that half second that makes the difference. The majority of the time it’s filled with the sleep-blurred memory of the first shock, but the rest of the quake is just a few seconds of fading jolts. Maybe one or two more decent shakes. Then it’s over, seeming like a minute or two but really only five or six seconds.

That didn’t happen this time.

The shaking didn’t go away, it intensified. Within about five seconds it was like riding a bucking bronco. The floor was bouncing. Books and computer disks and papers and boxes and all sorts of junk was falling onto me from the bookshelves in the room. It was pitch dark as the electricity had gone out within seconds. The noise was incredible, like I was lying just inches from a freight train going by at hundred miles an hour.

I didn’t have time to be scared, I just reacted. I had to get to the kids and Janet.

I was sleeping in the fifth bedroom at the far end of the house. The kids were each in their rooms on the other side of the dining room, kitchen, and front foyer from me. In the pitch blackness I started screaming at the top of my lungs, “GET INTO THE HALLWAY! GET INTO THE HALLWAY! GET INTO THE HALLWAY!” I had no idea if the kids or Janet could hear me, but I was hoping they would remember what to do.

I manged to get out of the bedroom and had a decision to make. They say to get into a doorway, but the bedroom doorway was a bad place to be because there were a couple of file cabinets there and I was afraid those drawers would open up and either block the door, clock me in the head, or both. I managed to get out by feel and then had a choice to go through the kitchen (the shorter, more direct route) or through the dining room.

I could hear things smashing and flying in the kitchen. I remember some training that the local PBS station had done and a warning that was quite clear was to stay out of the kitchen. Drawers would fly open and many sharp objects might be flying about. Lots of glass things would be coming out of cupboards and breaking. Kitchen + earthquake = dangerous. I picked the dining room.

I couldn’t stand to save my life. The floor was bouncing and rippling. The chandelier was swinging and threatening to break loose. Dining table chairs were dancing around. And always, the noise. Partly from the house trying to tear itself apart, partly from me still screaming.

I crawled through the dining room, finally making it onto the carpet in the front foyer. I think I was about halfway across that area, maybe eight feet or so, when the shaking finally stopped. Or at least subsided. I was able to get to my feet, open the hallway door, and get to the kids.

Everyone was safe. Two of the kids were out in the hallway and Janet was coming out of her bedroom. If I remember correctly, one of the girls slept right through it and I had to go wake her up and bring her into the hallway.

The central hallway was the safest, most structurally sound place in the house. I got everyone bedded down there for the moment, then went to grab some clothes, shoes, and a flashlight.

I took a quick tour of the house and yard, looking for gas leaks, critical damage, broken glass, and so on. As I was wandering around outside, neighbors were doing the same and we did a quick comparison of notes. Everyone made sure that we were all okay.

Our neighborhood was lucky. Even though we were less than five miles from the epicenter, I don’t think anyone on our block got “red tagged,” i.e., had their house condemned as unsafe to occupy. There were plenty who were “yellow tagged,” but we escaped even that.

We had a couple of cinder block walls separating our yard from the neighbors that were down. Our water heater had cracked and dumped its hot contents all over the laundry room next to the bedroom where I had been, but only after I had crawled by. That would have been fifty gallons of super hot water that would have been another obstacle to overcome to get out of that room.

We had plenty of stuff dumped off of shelves and out of drawers. The kitchen was a mess and most everything in the refrigerator and freezer was out on the floor, but with the electricity out it was going to spoil quickly anyway.

Of course, electricity, gas, and water were all out. But we didn’t have any gas or water leaks other than the water heater. There was no broken glass. There were plenty of cracks in plaster and brick walls, but no structural damage that would prevent doors or windows from opening or closing.

After a quick survey I went back to Janet and the kids, who of course were scared. They were all great though, never panicked, never got freaked out. The kids wanted to go see what was going on, so after they got dressed I took them around to see what was happening.

Most importantly, we had survived. That PBS documentary on surviving “the big one” pointed out that at this point, assuming you weren’t hurt or had some other critical problem like a fire, you could take a deep breath and relax a bit. For the average person, you had survived what was statistically likely to be the most terrifying, dangerous natural disaster event of your life.

Now you just had to deal with the aftermath.

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The Big One

We’re coming up this week on the 25th anniversary of the Northridge earthquake. For those who don’t know, it’s the biggest earthquake to hit the Los Angeles area in Southern California in about 165 years. It’s easily the biggest since we had a decent sized city here instead of a mission or pueblo. And historically on average we have them about every 100 year or so, so we’re overdue.

In part related to that, one of the local NPR stations has started a new podcast series.

I rarely listen to podcasts simply because I don’t have the time, but this intrigued me. I listened to the first episode tonight and it scared the shit out of me, as much as any horror story.

It’s very well done. I think what triggered me was not where they talk about Northridge (although that didn’t help) but the segment with a woman who survived being buried in a building collapse in a New Zealand earthquake.

If you’re interested, I recommend subscribing to the podcast. This first episode was about the actual quake and what happens in the first few minutes afterward. Subsequent episodes will follow up how we all try to survive the aftermath in the chaos of the weeks and months that follow.

One of the biggest problems that emergency planners have with getting the public ready to survive a major earthquake is that people don’t focus on a danger that’s neither imminent nor predictable. We know statistically that it’s going to happen, but we don’t know if it will happen tonight or forty years from now. When it does happen, we don’t know if it will be in the middle of the night (like Northridge) when most people are at home asleep in relative safety, or if it will happen in the middle of a work day or rush hour when tens of thousands of people could be killed on the freeways and in collapsing office buildings.

I like to think we’re above the curve on preparation. We have bugout bags prepared with water, flashlights, food, and so on. We have made a habit of having a flashlight at our bedsides, with shoes and clothes next to the bed if we should need them in the middle of the night.

But I have no illusions about how quickly those preparations will be proven to be woefully inadequate when the 8.0 quake hits, tens of thousands die, multiple tens of thousands are injured, hundreds of thousands are homeless, and there’s no water, electricity, gas, internet, cell phone service, or any other utilities for weeks or even months.

This week’s reminders in general, and this podcast series in particular, will help to remind all of us who live on shaky ground that no matter what we think we’ve done, we need to do much better. With luck, we’ll pay attention and do better.

First resolution to remember, courtesy of this episode’s simple tips at the end of the show – try to never let your gas tank get less than half full. Don’t go until you’re on fumes and then fill up as most of us (myself included) do. When the big one hits, there might not be any gasoline available for weeks. If you have to evacuate and it happens to hit on a day when you’re on fumes, you’re screwed.

Just what I needed, one more thing to worry about.


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No Context For You – December 01st

A dark month, December. The days get shorter, the nights get longer, the temperatures drop, the winds howl, the rains arrive.

Is it any wonder that at the solstice we celebrate, no matter the religious or cultural justification?

Do we think we can frighten the night and the cold away with frantic noises and celebration? Do we as an “enlightened” people simply recognize the results of axial tilt and recognize the circumstantial passing of a defined point in the calliope of Newtonian mechanics? Or does it even matter?

We’ve made it through 11/12ths of this 2018 ordeal. Let us gather our strength to finish strong and bravely meet 2019 head on.

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No Context For You – November 22nd

Thankful for many things on this American Thanksgiving Day…

…yet also conscious of how many items include the concept of “thankful that it’s not so much worse and hoping that this time next year it won’t be this bad.”

Adventures can be simple things and exhilarating.

The big adventures, the ones that make front page headlines day after day after month after year – technically exhilarating, but usually not in a good way. The Space Race fifty years ago was one of the good ones. The current political situation and climate change (in general – brush fires, hurricanes, blizzards in particular) are bad.

Let’s all hope that next Thanksgiving we can all be thankful that those crises are less threatening than they are this Thanksgiving. And let’s all spend the next 365 days doing what we can to make that happen.

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