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Local News

What If the Next Earthquake Hits Santa Barbara?

Tuesday's temblor produced only the faintest of ripples locally, but it raised important questions.

As earthquakes go, Tuesday’s Los Angeles-area temblor was but a rolling ride on a gentle wave for Santa Barbara, but even small rumbles can pose unsettling questions.

Is it a sign of more to come? What if it happened here? Are homes safe?

UCSB seismologist Jamison Steidl said that while earthquake science has not advanced to the level of interpreting the predictive meaning of any given earthquake, Tuesday’s 5.4-magnitude roller is not entirely rare.

The tremor was the largest a California city has had since the 6.7-magnitude quake devastated Northridge in 1994, but Steidl said the entire southern half of California — from Santa Barbara to San Diego to the desert in the east — experiences on average one quake of that magnitude every year.

“It’s a normal occurrence,” he said.

As for when the next “Big One” is coming, seismologists can make only a long-range “earthquake forecast” based on factors such as speed of the moving faults, Steidl said. The general consensus, he said, is that there is a 99 percent chance that California will experience another quake with a magnitude of 6.7 or greater in the next 30 years.

It’s difficult to know exactly what that means for Santa Barbara, which experienced its last “Big One” in 1925, when a quake with an estimated magnitude of 6.3 shook much of the city to the ground, killing about a dozen people.

But it’s worth asking: What if the epicenter of Tuesday’s 5.4-magnitude quake had been on the South Coast? After all, in 1978, a quake of just 5.1 magnitude gave Santa Barbara a bruising. The quake, causing an estimated $15 million in structural damage, knocked a freight train off its tracks near Goleta, and left about 65 people with injuries, most of them minor.

These days, though, modern-day structures tend to be able to withstand quakes of up to 6 magnitude, Steidl said. That is why Tuesday’s shakeup did little more than knock a few items off grocery-store shelves near the epicenter in Chino Hills, he said.

“When you get to 6.5 or greater, you start to see more issues,” he said. “And we learn more every time we have an earthquake.”

That doesn’t mean everyone in California — or Santa Barbara — has a home that a seismologist would live in.

Structural safety codes for buildings in California and throughout the country get more stringent every three years, said Chris Hensen, a supervisor in the city of Santa Barbara’s building and safety department.

Noncompliant buildings are not typically sought out. Rather, buildings usually must conform to the latest seismic standards only when undergoing significant structural changes.

Generally, though, “If it’s been built in the last 30 years, you’re probably not in too great of danger,” Hensen said.

Worrisome, experts say, are the houses built before the 1950s. It wasn’t standard practice then to bolt homes to their foundations, so those structures have a tendency to bounce and slide off the base in a big earthquake.

Also potentially dangerous are two-story homes with large openings on the bottom floor, such as garages, Hensen said. Those structures were hit hard in the Northridge quake because the large openings caused the floor above to vibrate wildly, Hensen said.

“They just pancaked those bottom floors,” he said of the two-story homes, apartment complexes and parking garages with large ground-floor openings in the Northridge quake.

The riskiest structures tend to be the nonreinforced masonry buildings made of brick.

The state has mandated that local jurisdictions upgrade such buildings, Hensen said. In the 1990s, Santa Barbara identified at least 100 nonreinforced masonry properties, most of them downtown businesses. The city, he said, has upgraded all but one: the shuttered California Hotel on lower State Street. That brick-façade building is slated for demolition as part of the La Entrada time-share project, he said.

In December 2003, a 6.5-magnitude quake in Paso Robles shook a brick building to the ground, killing two women. Steidl said the mistake they made was to run out of the building.

The best thing to do, Steidl said, is to find a sturdy structure to crawl beneath, such as a table, to avoid falling objects such as light fixtures, dishes and televisions. Standing close to a wall also is usually a good idea, he said.

Santa Barbara is home to a fault that could produce a whopper. Sometimes referred to as the North Channel Fault, it is mostly offshore, on the ocean floor between the Channel Islands and the Santa Barbara coast, and dips underground beneath the city.

“It’s responsible for our nice mountains here,” Steidl said.

These are the types of faults that can lead to epic earthquakes of 7 or greater, he said, but there are many unmapped faults that can produce a 6.

As for Hensen, ironically, at the time of the quake, he was at a building-inspector conference in Brea, which is near Chino Hills. The quake startled the group of about 80 people out of their chairs, he said.

“It was pretty intense. The floor moved a good foot-and-a-half vertically,” he said. “You definitely came up out of your chair. … We were all starting to duck and cover, moving to the exterior edges of the room. It was quite an experience.”

People can find out more about the construction history of their homes by making an appointment with the building-and-safety division of the city community development department, at 630 Garden St., Hensen said. The department’s phone number is 805.564.5476.

Other earthquake preparedness tips:

» Keep a pair of shoes near your bed at all times, in case you need to walk over broken glass

» Find a person from out of Southern California you can call. Oftentimes the calls from a major event can jam up the local lines.

» Bolt your television to the wall or a table, and don’t store dishes in high places.

» Have at least three days worth of water on hand.

Click here for more tips.

Also, the county this week sent a press release urging residents to conduct safety checks of their residences to make sure all utilities remain properly connected and that no obvious signs of structural damage occurred. 

Residents and business owners should keep the following telephone numbers handy should they need help with electric or natural gas utilities:

For natural gas service throughout the county, call the Southern California Gas Co. at 1-800-427-2200.

For electricity in the South County area, call Southern California Edison at 1-800-655-4555.

For electricity in the middle and northern areas of the County (except Lompoc), call Pacific, Gas & Electric at 1-800-225-5743.  Lompoc has its own municipal electric utility provided by the City.

During widespread emergencies or when the County activates its Emergency Operations Center, residents and visitors are advised to stay alert for additional information by listening to the Santa Barbara County government cable TV station Channel 20.

They can also tune into what the county considers radio “stations of choice” for emergencies. 

AM stations include: KTMS—990, KZSB—1290, KUHL—1410 and KINF—1440

FM stations include: KCSB—91.9, KSPE—94.5 (Spanish), KSYV—96.7, KTYD—99.9, KSBL—101.7, KRAZ—105.9 and KIST—107.7 (Spanish).

While driving Highway 154, the County recommends motorists tune to the San Marcos Pass Radio station, 1040—AM.

For additional information, go online to www.CountyofSB.org or call 2-1-1.  If you have a medical or other life-threatening emergency, always call 9-1-1.


Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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