* Updated previous quake from Santa Barbara to Long Beach
Vanessa Whang, the director of programs at the California Council for the Humanities in the Bay Area, contributes a reminiscence of the 1971 Sylmar earthquake on the Zocalo Public Square website. Her family lived in Sylmar, slept in the car for a few days after the quake that killed 65, and remembers some dogs and families fleeing the neighborhood never to be seen again. At magnitude 6.6, it was the biggest quake along the Southern California coast since the 1933 Long Beach quake (6.4 magnitude.) The '25 quake that destroyed downtown Santa Barbara was 6.3. The 41st anniversary of Sylmar is Thursday.
I don’t know when it started or who made up the story, but as kids growing up in the San Fernando Valley, we all lived in fear of the Big One—the massive earthquake on the San Andreas Fault that was going to separate L.A. from the continental U.S. and make Palm Springs beachfront property. In science class, we were shown black-and-white films of earthquakes toppling tall buildings and wreaking havoc on hapless populations. This would be our fate. This is what we should be prepared for (though it didn’t seem like there was really any way to prepare). Mostly, we just accepted the notion that one day it would all be over; that was the way things were. Besides, other places had hurricanes or tornados or ice storms, so it wasn’t like you could escape disaster. It was a matter of picking your poison.
So it wasn’t a mystery to me what was happening that early morning on February 9, 1971. I knew immediately it was an earthquake. I was on the top bunk of a bunk bed in the room I shared with my older sister, and I woke to the sound of screaming. At some point, I realized I was the one who was screaming.
I posted some then and now photos last year on the 40th anniversary. The quake struck at dawn, 6:01 a.m. These clocks came out of one of the downed hospitals.
On a world scale, the underwater earthquake that triggered the deadly tsunami in Japan last March 11 was magnitude 9.0 — many times stronger than Sylmar.