SoCal earthquakes remind us of the need to be prepared

A road in the east bay after the 1868 Earthquake. (source unknown, courtesy of Richard Schwartz)
A road in the East Bay after the 1868 earthquake. Source unknown, courtesy of Richard Schwartz

The recent earthquakes in Southern California are a stark reminder that large quakes can strike in Berkeley and the surrounding area at any time. This article was originally published on Berkeleyside in 2012. This is an updated version.

It is a sobering endeavor to remember the 1868 Hayward Fault earthquake, the last major eruption on our local fault. The USGS states that major, destructive earthquakes occur along the Hayward Fault, on average, every 138 years. (This is also about the time it takes the Hayward Fault to build up enough force to produce a major earthquake again.) This means that, since 2006, we have been due for another. There is no doubt that the Hayward Fault, the most densely populated earthquake fault in the United States, is going to lash out mightily sometime soon.

Is “soon” in a few decades, a few years, or a few minutes?

The fact is that, as a community, we have chosen to mostly ignore what happened on Oct. 21, 1868, at 7:54 a.m., and at what is most likely in store for us. Few know the facts of this history. What is to be seen is not pretty. It is rather ominous.


The 45-second 1868 Hayward earthquake (over 2½ times longer in duration than the Loma Prieta quake, and equal in intensity to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake) arrived with a rumble and then increased shaking. Stopping for a second or two, it then resumed with a growing and overwhelming power and clamor. It ended with a forceful and tight oscillating motion in many locations.

Many people were knocked down and could not stand again until the shaking stopped. Some folks grabbed onto trees or fences to try to stabilize themselves. Many trees swayed like pendulums. People were propelled across rooms and back again. A number of residents all over the Bay Area witnessed fissures in the earth open and then close again like a hungry mouth.

In 1868 the Hayward Fault ruptured from south of Fremont to as far north as what would become Berkeley.

Some folks just sank down and waited. Many assumed this was it for them and began to prepare to meet their doom. Panic ensued in some places and, as far away as Sacramento, people charged into the streets through the dust as soon as the wild gyrations stopped. The Hayward Fault had ruptured from south of Fremont to as far north as what would become Berkeley.

Many people experienced the quake and its intense horizontal shaking but had no, or only minor, damage to their structures. In general, it depended on what kind of ground you happened to be on and what kind of building you were in. There were locations where destroyed buildings and unharmed ones were right next to each other.

San Francisco suffered major damage, mostly in the area of the “made-ground” where Yerba Buena Cove had been filled in (now the Financial District). This area had previously been ten to 80 feet deep in mud. As a rule of thumb, the further from the epicenter (Hayward) you were, the less intense your experience was, but there were notable exceptions to that rule.

Many people reported feeling a sinking feeling, nausea or dizziness during the quake. Some reported an electrical feeling in their knees. Huge boulders rolled out of the East Bay hills taking trees with them. Long-dry creek beds suddenly gushed with water. Fissures opened in the ground in numerous locations all over the East Bay and as far south as Santa Cruz.

Fissures opened by Lake Merritt and the bay shore in Oakland, at the base of the Hayward hills, and along the San Ramon Valley and hills in Contra Costa County. It was almost impossible for the stagecoach to traverse the road between San Leandro and Warm Springs due to the many newly formed crevices.

A man herding his cattle in Summerville, a town near Mt. Diablo, had to leap two or three paces to avoid falling in a fast-forming gap in the earth during the rumbling. Some fissures spouted dust or water, one gushing as high as 50 feet in the air. Some earth was raised up, while other nearby areas fell and became ponds. New springs were born while others dried up.

A continuous nine-mile-long fissure opened starting in Oakland around Mills College, extending south and east to San Leandro. Later studies indicate the straight fissure, ranging from six inches to six feet in width, continued for 30 miles.

The earthquake of 1868 was powerful enough — somewhere between a 6.8 and a 7.0 magnitude — that, even after destroying much of the small towns of San Leandro and Hayward, it still had enough wallop to slither with the speed of a jet fighter to Sacramento, where it shook the ground with such violence that the Sacramento River ran backwards momentarily, leaving the ship The Globe sitting in mud. The river returned in a matter of seconds with a two-foot wave that pounded dockside ships intensely. People “vomited” (to quote Mark Twain) into the streets in general confusion and fear, though not panic.

Some large warehouses near San Francisco Bay sank. Others in the flatlands collapsed. One toppled into the bay near Warm Springs. Some were untouched, especially on the hills of San Francisco.

Kanaka Davis had built a two-story house along the mouth of San Leandro Creek. During the earthquake, it sank to its second story into a wide earthquake fissure. The family was still inside. They miraculously escaped unharmed. Other buildings were ripped in half, tipped, or in various stages of collapse or damage. Most chimneys were toppled or twisted. Large areas, such as all of Oakland, were almost devoid of standing chimneys. Interestingly, every downed chimney there fell in a southerly direction. In Oakland, glass littered Broadway, some brick buildings suffered collapsing walls, and some did not. Some were destroyed, some unharmed.

Brick buildings in much of the Bay Area did not, as a whole, perform well. After the quake there was a call to limit their height and require that they be reinforced with steel. Others demanded that city hall structures be rebuilt with wood rather than masonry materials. (They originally chose a masonry city hall to minimize fire risk). Damage to city halls or courthouses was almost universal in the Bay Area.

Just north of Berkeley was part of the Victor Castro Rancho. There was a massive landslide in the low hills of what is now El Cerrito. Today it is designated a “special studies zone” and realtors disclose that fact to potential buyers in this zone.
Just north of Berkeley was part of the Victor Castro Rancho. There was a massive landslide in the low hills of what is now El Cerrito. Today it is designated a “special studies zone” and realtors disclose that fact to potential buyers in this zone. Photo: Courtesy Richard Schwartz

The 11 chimneys of the California School for the Deaf (now UC Berkeley’s Clark Kerr Campus), in what would become Berkeley a decade later, were knocked down. The massive new stone building, which was in the process of being completed, suffered some downed gable-end walls and other repairable damage. One workman was about 140 feet in the air, at the top of the new wooden tower, when the earthquake exploded. He held on while it swayed many feet back and forth. The majority of the building held together well. One workman commented that if the construction had been of brick and not stone, the school would not have been left standing.

The Hayward Fault’s western side ruptured six feet horizontally to the north, on average, that morning. The fault physically ruptured as far north as what would become Berkeley. Down at Jacob’s Wharf, by the shoreline, much lumber was tossed into the bay.

There were only about 24,000 people living near the fault in 1868, which limited casualties. Today there are over 2 million.

The Bay Area population of 1868 was fundamentally brave, hearty and self-reliant, and began cleaning up the mess at once. Then they began rebuilding and repairing with determination. They had no choice. Deaths were surprisingly few, somewhere around 30.

Given the magnitude and reach of the earthquake, the East Bay was amazingly lucky. But there were only about 24,000 people living near the fault in 1868, which limited casualties. Today there are over 2 million.

Within a matter of days, the people quickly thought about and published the lessons they believed they learned from the seismic event. They concluded that chimneys above the roofline should be made of sheet metal and not brick. Many believed that well-built wood-frame houses were basically earthquake-proof if they had a proper foundation on solid land. They warned to never build with heavy cornices, overhangs, or awnings, as they could fall and kill people running out of buildings, as had just occurred.

They said good mortar must be used in building walls and chimneys. They cautioned that masonry buildings should have metal braces and ties, and that foundations and walls should be thick. Firewalls above roofs — mandated to help prevent fires from spreading quickly from one roof to another — were condemned as they fell with such thunder and frightening frequency in the earthquake. Earthquake dangers now took precedence over fire hazards, the previous number-one danger. Today we are confronted with an elevated risk from both fire and earthquakes. 

Most of all, people were cautioned not to run out of buildings during an earthquake and to stay calm. Some called for a commission to study the best practices for future building and for those recommendations to be enforced.

Time is running out to prepare for a potentially massive disaster. Here we sit. Some of us are just waiting. Others are preparing for what is surely on its way to our homes — soon.

Newspapers noted that deaths from natural disasters in California were much less than back east, where 300 people had died of sunstroke in New York the previous year. They urged strength, faith and determination. They stated their lessons clearly. If those lessons had been followed, especially by governmental officials, hundreds of people would not have lost their lives in the subsequent 1906 earthquake.

Look around. Look around your house, your block, and your neighborhood. We have built pipelines for jet fuel on our Bay Shore and oil refineries in and near our communities. We have fire, toxic and collapse hazards. We also have bridges and gas stations and overpasses and chemical plants posing unknown levels of potential risks. We continue to build on “made-land,” and pretend that human engineering of a masonry football stadium directly on the Hayward Fault will protect tens of thousands of people when a 40-mile mass of earth intends to rupture and shift.

An invisible Paul “Earthquake” Revere is riding down your block crying out, “The earthquake is coming. The earthquake is coming.” But few are listening. They are talking on cell phones or texting. They are ordering from menus and busy with chores and children. They are us.

Time is running out to prepare for a potentially massive disaster. Here we sit. Some of us are just waiting. Others are preparing for what is surely on its way to our homes — soon.

Suggestions on a personal/family level:

  1. Have a pair of slippers or shoes by your bed. Running over broken glass was the biggest single emergency room injury in the Northridge earthquake.
  2. If you sleep near a glass window, try and use a blind or drape to lessen the likelihood that you will have falling glass come down on you directly.
  3. Keep a crow bar or pry bar near your bed in case doors or windows are stuck and you need to get out.
  4. If you are in bed, put the pillow or blanket over your head and stay covered for the duration of the quake to keep falling plaster, sheetrock, glass or other falling objects from hitting you.
  5. Keep a number of flashlights in places easily found in the dark.
  6. In most cases, try not to run outside during an earthquake unless you are already there. Falling debris from structures has killed many people in earthquakes as they run out of buildings. No one can offer a blanket statement on this, you have to use your own judgment in each situation, but generally, it is safer to just find a table or desk to get under. “Drop, cover, hold” as the USGS says. They advised this as early as 1868 after people were killed by falling debris while running out of structures.
  7. Have a lot of emergency water and nonperishable foods stored in your car, house, and backyard. Don’t put all your supplies, including pet food, in one place. Nature loves a good joke. (Things like sealed packages of dried fruit, nuts, vacuum pouched pre-cooked foods, and canned drinks offer an easy answer. Have a water purifier kit.) Include food for any pets.
  8. Store/hide a set of car/truck keys somewhere outside. You may be living in your car as shelter, especially in the rainy winter. It would give you shelter that people of the past did not have, but it is not useful if you don’t have your keys to get in. It rained heavily on homeless refugees intensely after the 1906 earthquake and officials were very afraid of mass illnesses occurring.
  9. An accessible tent and sleeping bags are a good idea to have around.
  10. Have a bag with extra and durable clothes and shoes at the ready and packed before an earthquake in case you have to leave your house in a hurry (or keep one in your vehicle).
  11. Have all your important things that you want to save ready or thought about (make a list before a disaster strikes while you are clear-headed).
  12. Keep records of your house insurance somewhere where they can be accessed (and any other important papers you may need if you can’t access your home) — maybe mail a copy to a relative or friend in another area.
  13. Keep extra supplies of any medications, eyeglasses, etc. you might need packed in a little travel bag. Don’t forget you may need that flashlight to find them.
  14. Have a block meeting and exchange information, contacts, family and pet occupant information, phone and cell phone numbers, etc. so everyone can check up on everyone else.
  15. Don’t forget the needs of your pets — water bowls, beds, food, medicines, treats, etc. to make their time easier.
  16. Have a first aid kit in a readily available place.

Suggestions on a house/structural level:

The most important thing is to have a licensed structural engineer assess the seismic resistance capacity of your home. Or see if your municipality has adopted “prescriptive standards” for residential houses and find out if it applies to your house. I would say all houses should be looked at by a qualified licensed structural engineer to advise you about seismically strengthening your home. 

Give your house  seismic retrofit: It may help save your house and your life and that of your family.

Other important ideas:

  1. Know where your gas shutoff valve is on your house at your gas meter in case you smell gas leaking. Have a shut-off wrench tied with a twist-it somewhere very close, or on, that meter so you can find it in the dark.
  2. Consider painting the shut-off valve red or orange so you can see it better at night.
  3. Consider having a licensed plumber install an automatic gas shutoff valve and learn how to reset it yourself. They will work even when you are not home.
  4. Consider having a licensed plumber install “excess flow valves” before every flex line at each gas appliance. If the gas flex line breaks, the appliance falls over or the appliance shimmies across the room during a quake and breaks the gas flex line (furnace, water heater, stove, etc.), the excess flow valve will shut the flow of gas off automatically. Each valve must be properly rated for the size of the gas appliance and a licensed plumber can do that. They are very inexpensive parts.
  5. Look at your brick chimneys. Usually the most frequent collapse (and hazard) comes from chimneys above the roofline. The higher they are, the more dangerous they are. Consider having a stainless steel Class “A” flu installed above the roofline. It must be properly sized by a licensed professional.
  6. Don’t use door locks which need a key to open from the inside (double cylinder deadbolts), as you may not find the key in an emergency.
  7. Have a fire extinguisher or two in the house. One in the kitchen and one in the bedroom.
  8. Have bookcases, dressers, etc. and other things that can fall strapped or braced to the wall. They make specialized items for that. They also make “earthquake putty” to secure ceramics or other items that might fall and break.
  9. If your water heater is not strapped with code-compliant heavy duty strapping (not plumbers tape — a thin metal strap with holes in it), then have a licensed plumber or contractor install it. It will help prevent your water heater from falling over. Make all connections perpendicular to the force that will want to pull them out (if possible).

Berkeley historian and author Richard Schwartz has lectured on the 1868 and the 1906 earthquakes. He is also a licensed building contractor. His books include: ‘Earthquake Exodus, 1906, Berkeley Responds to the San Francisco Refugees’;’’The  Man Who Lit Lady Liberty, The Extraordinary Rise and Fall of Actor M. B. Curtis’; ‘Berkeley 1900, Daily Life at the Turn of the Century’; ‘Eccentrics, Heroes and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley’; and ‘The Circle of Stones.’