Five decades later, the San Fernando Earthquake has had a lasting impact on the Southland and across the nation.
In the early morning of Feb. 9, 1971, the magnitude-6.6 quake, also known as the Sylmar Earthquake, struck the San Fernando Valley, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
The seismic event caused over $500 million in property damage and 65 deaths. Most of the deaths occurred when the Veteran’s Administration Hospital collapsed. Several other hospitals, including the Olive View Community Hospital in Sylmar, suffered severe damage, according to the USGS.
Newly constructed freeway overpasses also collapsed, in damage scenes similar to those which occurred 23 years later in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. Loss of life could have been much greater had the earthquake struck at a busier time of day.
The quake occurred on the San Fernando fault zone, a zone of thrust faulting which broke the surface in the Sylmar-San Fernando Area. The total surface rupture was roughly 12 miles long, according to the geological survey.
The 1971 Sylmar Earthquake was the worst to hit an urban area of California since the 1933 magnitude-6.4 Long Beach quake, according to the USGS.
The quake prompted Governor Ronald Reagan to declare Los Angeles County a disaster area and President Richard Nixon to send Vice President Spiro Agnew to inspect the area.
After the earthquake, the State of California enacted the Alquist Priolo Act to limit construction along faults that likely caused earthquakes able to rupture the ground surface in the last 11,000 years.
On the federal level, Congress renewed its interest in earthquake safety, held hearings and introduced new bills to establish a national earthquake research program.
Congress eventually passed the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977, which led to the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, or NEHRP, and was pivotal in helping establish what is now the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program.
An earthquake large enough to spur legislative action and help form new federal programs garnered much media attention.
The earthquake was the first disaster in the United States to happen after the Disaster Relief Act of 1970, which directed federal agencies to provide assistance to state and local governments, according to the USGS.
At the time of the earthquake, FEMA did not exist.
The epicenter of the quake was about 8.7 miles north of San Fernando in a sparsely populated area of the San Gabriel Mountains. It was 5.6 miles deep and generally felt over approximately 80,000 square miles of California, Nevada and Arizona, according to the agency.
More than 200 aftershocks with a magnitude of 3 or more occurred over the next month. The upper San Fernando Valley, including the northern section of the City of Los Angeles, sustained the most severe damage to buildings and utilities.
There were 64 causalities directly related to the earthquake, with 49 people killed at the San Fernando Veterans Administration Hospital. Two of its buildings were completely destroyed by the quake. Others died at Olive View Hospital, under collapsed freeway overpasses and at other locations. At Olive View, four 5-story wings pulled away from the main building and three of them toppled, according to the USGS.
“I remember biking on the [not yet open] 210 freeway and seeing damaged bridges including near Foothill Boulevard, which had mushroomed columns,” said Glenn Biasi, a USGS scientist.
Biasi’s home in Sunland, about 11 miles from the epicenter, was damaged in the earthquake. He also recalled seeing people during the recovery phase salvaging used lumber from destroyed homes in San Fernando.
Margaret Vinci, manager of the Office of Earthquake Programs at the California Institute of Technology, was living in Arcadia, about 30 miles from Sylmar, at the time of the earthquake and although her home had no damage, her relatives in the San Fernando Valley really struggled with repairs. “It took them months to recover,” Vinci said. She recalled her aunt’s home in Reseda was so damaged that her aunt had to live with Vinci immediately after the quake. “Her front yard was a plot of mud for weeks because of broken pipes,” Vinci said.
There were more than 250 strong-motion seismographs around Southern California at the time of the San Fernando earthquake. Most of them were privately owned but maintained by the then-Seismological Field Survey unit of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Ocean Survey as part of a cooperative network.
The San Fernando earthquake was the first to record more than 1-g of acceleration in a horizontal direction, which happened on a seismograph at the abutment of Pacoima Dam. Before that point, the maximum thought reasonable was much lower. Since then, many higher recordings have been made, but in the history of strong-motion seismology, San Fernando was a turning point, according to the USGS.
During the quake, the mountains lurched as much as 5 feet to the south in a matter of seconds, damaging roadways, pipelines and other structures embedded in the ground, and leaving a discontinuous tear where the fault ruptured the ground surface across the mountain front.
Severe ground fractures and land sliding caused extensive damage in areas away from the fault itself, which is a common phenomenon for earthquakes of this magnitude. Landslides on very gentle slopes, known as lateral spreads and related to a process called liquefaction, happened in swaths of the northwestern San Fernando Valley. Though less visually dramatic, these caused significant damage to pipes and other infrastructure, according to the USGS.
3.0 Simi Valley Earthquake Felt In San Fernando Valley
A 3.0 magnitude Simi Valley earthquake was felt in parts of the San Fernando Valley Friday afternoon.
The small earthquake was reported at 12:51 p.m. Friday centered about 6 miles west of Chatsworth near Simi Valley, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
The Simi Valley quake was originally believed to be a 3.2 on the Richter scale, however, USGS seismologists later downgraded the earthquake to a 3.0 magnitude.
Residents in Canoga Park, Chatsworth, Winnetka and other areas of the west San Fernando Valley reported feeling the shake.
The earthquake was described as a “short jolt” by some residents, with USGS reporting the quake to be over 10 kilometers deep.
No damage or injuries have been reported as of 1 p.m. Friday.
To report feeling the shaking of the Simi Valley earthquake, visit the USGS website.
Note: This is a breaking news story, more information will be added as it becomes available.
Remembering The Northridge Earthquake 27 Years Later
The Northridge Earthquake struck the Southland 27 years ago, with the lasting impact still rippling into 2021.
At about 4:30 a.m. Jan. 17, 1994, a magnitude 6.7 earthquake erupted in Northridge, according to the California Institute of Technology (CalTech).
The Northridge quake caused wide-spread damage, with sections of major freeways, parking structures, office buildings collapsing, and numerous apartment buildings suffered irreparable damage, according to CalTech.
By the time the sun began to rise, the impact of the Northridge Earthquake was incalculable. In total, the earthquake killed more than 60 people, injured more than 9,000 and caused damage amounting to over $20 billion, according to the City of Los Angeles.
At the Northridge Meadows apartment complex, 16 people were killed, all of whom lived on the first floor, when the three-story structure fell down, according to History.
A motorcycle police officer died when his vehicle plunged off of a just-collapsed section of freeway.
The earthquake occurred on a blind thrust fault, and produced the strongest ground motions ever instrumentally recorded in an urban setting in North America, according to CalTech researchers.
Despite the tremendous losses, there also were gains made through earthquake hazard mitigation efforts of the last two decades which is expected to save countless lives.
Retrofits of masonry buildings helped reduce the loss of life, hospitals suffered less structural damage than in the 1971 San Fernando earthquake, and emergency response was exemplary. The Northridge earthquake proved that preparing for earthquakes can greatly reduce the risk, according to CalTech.
The American Red Cross Los Angeles Region commemorates 27 years since the Northridge earthquake urging residents of Southern California to take the necessary steps to prepare their households for the next “Big One.”
The Northridge Earthquake remains one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history. The Red Cross mobilized 15,000 workers, served 1.7 million meals, provided shelter for nearly 22,000 people and provided mental health counseling to more than 40,000 affected Californians, according to the Red Cross.
“The Northridge earthquake shattered so many lives; it’s a day I will never forget,” said Renetzky, one of the on-call disaster officers at that time. “What stands out most in my memory was my relief that I had planned ahead and was properly prepared for such a disaster. It’s one of the reasons I was able to help others. Everyone must be prepared to survive the next big Southern California earthquake.”
Following a major disaster, families should be equipped with enough food, water and emergency supplies to last for two weeks, until outside help can arrive, according to the organization.
The Red Cross recommends residents to build an easy-to-carry emergency preparedness kit that you can use at home or take in the event of an evacuation. Include items such as water, non-perishable food, a flashlight and extra batteries, a battery-powered radio, first aid kit and medications.
The organization also recommends making a plan. Talk with members of your household about what to do during emergencies. Plan what to do in case everyone is separated and choose two places to meet—one right outside your home in case of a sudden emergency such as a fire, and another outside your neighborhood, in case you cannot return home or are asked to evacuate.
For more information on how to prepare for an earthquake, visit here.
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