Waiting for the Big One

By Bob Hazard   |   July 11, 2019

Montecito received a warning last week from two of California’s biggest earthquakes in the last 20 years, a 6.4 magnitude quake last Thursday on the 4th of July, followed by a 7.1 magnitude shake and quake 34 hours later at 8 pm Friday evening. Both quakes originated in the Mojave high-desert region near Ridgecrest, a four-hour, 209-mile drive from Montecito. Ridgefield is a small town, three times the size of Montecito, 110 miles east of Bakersfield, sitting between four mountain ranges – the Sierra Nevada Range to its west, the Cosos Range to the north, the Argus Range to the east, and the El Paso Mountains to the south.

Damage in Ridgecrest and nearby Trona was light, limited to motor homes knocked off their foundations, four gas fires and collapsed chimneys, but few injuries and no deaths. Floors were littered with fallen ceiling tiles and debris. The Naval Air Station at nearby China Lake was shut down rendering it “not mission capable.” Here in Montecito, the tremor and swaying led to the interruption and cancellation of the evening performance at the local Music Academy of the West. Officials halted the performance at Hahn Hall with orders to clear the venue. The Padres game at Dodger Stadium was interrupted in the fourth inning, but not suspended. Disneyland in Orange County closed its rides; the Big Apple Coaster swayed in Las Vegas.

The Wakeup Call: Northridge 1994

The last major earthquake in California was in 1994 in densely populated Northridge, where a 6.7 magnitude earthquake killed 57 people, collapsed freeways and caused billions of dollars in property damage. Thanks to the Thomas Wildfire and the accompanying 1/9/18 debris flow, Montecito is on high alert for future natural disasters, especially ones that could close our only two lifelines to the outside world, the undersized and aging 101, and the inoperative 192 East Valley Road with its still missing bridges.

1925 Santa Barbara Earthquake

At 6:42 am on June 29, 1925, the city of Santa Barbara shook with a 6.3 earthquake. In the downtown business district, an area of about 36 blocks, 85% of the commercial buildings were destroyed or badly damaged in 19 seconds. Fortunately, because of the early hour, the quake killed only 13 people. 

Most homes survived the earthquake in relatively good condition, although nearly every chimney in the city crumbled. The towers of the Santa Barbara Mission were severely damaged but were subsequently rebuilt by 1927. Many important buildings, including hotels, offices, and the Potter Theater on lower State Street, were lost. The courthouse, jail, library, schools, and churches were among the buildings sustaining serious damage. Concrete curbs buckled in almost every block in Santa Barbara. 

The Southern Pacific railroad tracks were damaged between Ventura and the Gaviota coast. Seaside bluffs fell into the ocean, and a slight tsunami was noted by offshore ships. The town was completely cut off from telephone and telegraph, and news from the outside world arrived by shortwave radio. Three strong aftershocks occurred in the next few hours, although none caused additional damage. 

A failed dam in the foothills released forty-five million gallons of water, and a gas company engineer became a hero when he shut off the city’s gas supply and prevented fires like those that had destroyed San Francisco twenty years earlier. The epicenter of the earthquake was located in the ocean off the coast of Santa Barbara, in the Santa Barbara Channel.

Aftermath of the 1925 Earthquake

Large-scale construction efforts in 1925 and 1926 removed or repaired damaged structures. New development completely altered the character of the city center. The Santa Barbara Community Arts Association, founded in the beginning of the 1920s, viewed the earthquake as the opportunity to rebuild the city center in a single, unified architectural style. Building codes in Santa Barbara were made more stringent after the earthquake. Traditional construction techniques of unreinforced concrete, brick, and masonry were deemed unsafe and unlikely to survive strong tremblers. 

When the Ground Shakes – Tips for Survival

The quaking question for Montecito residents is: “How well are you prepared?” Running outside during an earthquake tremor is not a good idea. If you try to move while the ground is rolling, you could break a leg or an ankle. Experts advise those inside their homes to drop, cover and hold. Drop to the floor on your hands and knees; crawl under a sturdy table and hold on. Stay away from glass windows, walls and anything that falls. Standing in a doorframe is an urban myth; it will collapse. If in bed, stay there, but protect your neck and head with pillows.

If outside, avoid power lines, trees and buildings. If driving, pull over and stay inside the car. Near the shore, seek higher ground. Watch for receding waves, a sign for a probable tsunami.

The Northridge Story: 1994

The insurance industry and emergency planners are still haunted by the fallout from the 1994 Northridge temblor. That quake cost an estimated $40 billion in today’s dollars for property losses – about half of that to homes. It also sparked a quake coverage crisis in the 1990s. Many companies simply stopped writing policies after getting stung with nearly $20 billion in payouts. And for the companies that remained, consumer prices soared. Those that were still in the market were increasing rates dramatically – doubling, or tripling or increasing by tenfold.

Faced with new expensive, bare-bones policies and high deductibles, homeowners bailed on coverage in droves. The state has been working to get those people back ever since. The publicly managed California Earthquake Authority, a not-for-profit, was set up by the state legislature after insurance companies stopped underwriting policies or had jacked up prices.

Earthquake Insurance in Montecito

Another question, “Should we now purchase earthquake insurance?”

Glenn Pomeroy, CEO of the California Earthquake Authority, worries that nearly 90% of California homeowners do not have earthquake insurance and barely 1 out of 10 commercial buildings is insured for quakes, according to the California Department of Insurance. Homeowners counter that quake insurance is too expensive and that deductibles are too high to make earthquake insurance cost effective.

Earthquake insurance on your residence or business is not included in even the best California homeowner policies. If you want earthquake coverage, you have to buy it separately or ask to have it added to your policy by endorsement or buy it from the California Earthquake Authority. However, if you have a homeowner’s insurance policy in California, your insurance company must offer to sell you earthquake insurance too. 

Here are some things to know, as offered by the California Department of Insurance:

• There are limits on what earthquake insurance pays. The purpose of earthquake insurance is to help put a roof back over your head. It does not pay enough to replace everything you lost.

• To estimate your earthquake insurance premium, use the Premium Calculator at www.earthquakeauthority.com

• A house is likely to have more damage if it is older, or built of brick or masonry, or has more than one story.

• If you can’t afford earthquake insurance, the state says there are ways to protect your home and reduce damage caused by earthquakes. It suggests retrofitting homes, securing breakable items with museum putty, bolting furniture, and tying down computers and televisions.

By backstopping risk, the California Earthquake Authority, over time, has helped fix what turned people away from coverage. It has dramatically lowered rates – by more than 50 percent – while substantially increasing coverage and flexibility. People can now decide the deductible they want – from as low as 5% up to 25%. Homeowners who have had a seismic upgrade to their foundation, or a retrofit, are eligible for up to a 20% discount for coverage.

“The fact that about 90 percent of the homes in California are unprepared for a major quake is a great concern,” Pomeroy says. “Seventy-five percent of the nation’s earthquake risk is right here in California. Scientists say we’re going to get hit again; it’s a certainty.” 

Locally, our two biggest unanswered concerns are: 1) collapsed 101 overpasses at Hot Springs, Olive Mill, San Ysidro or Sheffield that could shut down all outbound resident evacuation traffic and inbound first responders and emergency supplies; and (2) a quake of sufficient size that it sends down all those hanging boulders still stored in the canyons of the Los Padres National Forest above Montecito.

Judging by the way Santa Barbara County officials looked the other way while we residents coughed up nearly $5 million to put up flexible steel nets for protection, it’s likely we won’t be able to count on the county for help. Good thing the Montecito Fire Department, FEMA, and the Army Corps of Engineers stand at the ready, but, at the least, you (and we) really should have a 72-hour backpack nearby. If you don’t know what to put into your emergency sack, call MERRAG (Montecito Emergency Response and Recovery Action Group) at 805-969-2537 or 805-969-7762 and they’ll be able to help.


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