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Earthquakes and Relationships

Interviews near the epicenter of the Ridgecrest earthquakes

On July 4, at 10:33 AM, as I was sitting at my dining room table in Los Angeles, I suddenly felt dizzy--as if I were on a boat which was surfing high waves — and I had to lie down on the floor. After about a minute, I felt better and got up. As I began to wonder why I felt so dizzy, I learned that I had just experienced the first 6.4 Ridgecrest earthquake that was centered 150 miles north of my house. Little did I know that it would be the beginning of an exciting adventure.

After the second earthquake (7.1) hit Ridgecrest the following day, my husband, Eric, who was born in Trona and grew up on the China Lake Navy Base next to Ridgecrest, asked me: “Darling, what would you think about driving to Ridgecrest and Trona today? I could write an article on the ability of pets to predict earthquakes and you could write an article on earthquakes and relationships." I told him it was a wonderful idea.

 Used with permission from Eric Haseltine, PhD
I am looking at a new rupture on the road between Ridgecrest and Trona
Source: Used with permission from Eric Haseltine, PhD

That was Saturday, July 5, at 10:00 AM. One hour later, we were in our car driving towards Ridgecrest. Three hours later, we were at the destination, interviewing people:

Candee Coffee, who is the owner of C & C Training Stables in Ridgecrest and who gives riding lessons to autistic children told us: “The earthquakes brought our family together. When the first quake happened, I was filling the baby pool with water for my ducks. I heard a roaring sound then the ground moved so much that I couldn’t stay standing up. I had to put the hose down and put a knee on the floor. I got so scared I must have said 'Holy F***' at least 15 times."

Candee continued: "My son called right away and came after the first quake to help me and my 95-year-old mother. My ranch foreman was also there within minutes helping. My neighbor called right away to ask if I was okay. After the second quake, I was scared to sleep in the house, so I brought my mattress outside and I slept on it with my mother and three of our five dogs. My son, daughter-in-law, and grandson slept in their car next to us. Having my family with me was very reassuring and the earthquakes made all of us so much closer. In town, it seems that everybody checked on everybody. It made us an even tighter community.”

Alice Campbell from the China Lake Museum in Ridgecrest commented: “After the first quake, I thought this would be a great marketing opportunity for the museum because the whole world will know where Ridgecrest is even though we are in a very remote area. But after the second quake, I didn’t think about marketing anymore. I got really scared. The rumble was incredibly loud. It was like a freight train going through the house. The house, instead of talking, was yelling. Things were dropping all around, heavy things were falling on the tile. I thought the house was going to fall on me and I ran outside. When it was over, I was still in shock and all I could think about was how to get ready for the next even bigger earthquake."

Alice added: "What surprised me is that the person who called right away was my next door neighbor. He wanted to make sure my husband and I were okay, and he reminded us to turn off the gas. I was very grateful. He then drove around to make sure people were safe. Soon after my neighbor called, I had a lot of calls from my family, friends and other neighbors. The support we got was incredible. In town, everybody was extremely friendly and helpful.”

When my husband Eric and I went to the local grocery store, Stater Bros, one of the managers mentioned that during the first quake (a 6.4 earthquake), many glass bottles and other items fell off the shelves and broke. Soon, 40 people came to help clean up and put all new bottles on the shelves (which took seven hours) so that the store could reopen the following day. Unfortunately, the following day, during the second quake (a 7.1 earthquake), the new bottles and reorganized shelves fell again and broke. Soon after, 60 people showed up to help clean up the mess, which took 11 hours. People’s willingness to help was amazing.

Jim Simmons, Eric’s high school classmate said “When a house caught on fire, I saw people with shorts and bare feet help firefighters unwind and carry water hoses. Everybody helped everybody.”

 Chris Gilbert, MD, PhD
Main water pipe between Ridgecrest and Trona.
Source: Chris Gilbert, MD, PhD

In the town of Trona, which was left without running water because of a broken water main parallel to the road to Ridgecrest, in addition to the California National Guards distributing bottled water, we met people coming from Bakersfield in their private cars, bringing bottled water to the Trona people in need.

A woman in Ridgecrest told us that she and her husband had slept in separate rooms for many years, but that last night, her husband came to her bed and slept with her. She told him: “So…. It takes an earthquake for you to sleep with me.” She had a smile on her face when talking to us. The earthquake experience made her and her husband much closer.

 Used with permission from Eric Haseltine, PhD
Water from the broken pipe between Ridgecrest and Trona
Source: Used with permission from Eric Haseltine, PhD

At a local commercial establishment, a man mentioned that after the earthquakes his partner told him: “If I had to do it all over again, it would be with you.”

The earthquakes made their love for each other stronger than ever, with an increased appreciation of each other. He also mentioned that he was glad to live in a close-knit society where everybody was looking out for everybody else. He said: “When I went to the grocery store after the first quake, a lot of people were hugging each other.”

My own experience is also worth mentioning. As my husband and I stayed at a local hotel in Ridgecrest, we noticed quite a few cracks in the stucco around our room on the second floor of a two-story motel. As we got ready to go to bed, we experienced a strong aftershock around 10:30 p.m. The combination of the damaged stucco and the aftershocks worried me. I couldn’t fall asleep. My body was full of adrenaline, expecting a possible third strong earthquake.

Finally, around 2:20 AM, I got up to go to the bathroom. As I was coming back, I heard a strong squeaking noise, then a rumble, then the room shook. I ran back to bed, my heart racing, not knowing what to expect. Fortunately, it was only an aftershock. I calmed down and stayed lying in bed in the silence of the night, attentive to the building’s smallest noises, when around 4:30 AM, a rumble and an up-and-down movement of the building made my heart race again.

Altogether during our stay in Ridgecrest, we experienced eight aftershocks, some of them rolling right and left, others up and down. But what prevented me from panicking was the comforting presence of my husband next to me. When we came back from our weekend, our love for each other was stronger than ever before. It was as if we had been in a war zone together and had just come back to safety.

Speaking of war zones (which I am familiar with after my experience working for Doctors Without Borders), the whole trip reminded us of a war zone. Ridgecrest hotels were all occupied by members of the press, radio, TV and geophysicists. A lot of people had come to Ridgecrest right after the first quake to report on it and were right there on the spot when the second quake hit the following day. They were all very shaken by the experience of the second 7.1 quake, which they said was the most powerful earthquake in the continental US in the last 20 years. We all were there with a common goal of reporting and all were at risk of experiencing an even bigger earthquake.

 Chris Gilbert, MD, PhD
New rupture on the ground between Ridgecrest and Trona. The left side of the tear is raised one foot compared to the right side.
Source: Chris Gilbert, MD, PhD

This made us very close to each other even though we had never met before. We got to know professors from UCLA and USC and their students who had come to study the faults. We got to know a lot of reporters, but also road workers who had been hired to repair the road between Ridgecrest and Trona. They all showed us what they were working on, pointing us to the different new ruptures on the road and in the fields.

 Used with permission from Eric Haseltine, PhD
The morning after the 7.1 earthquake, the road is being repaired.
Source: Used with permission from Eric Haseltine, PhD

We were there all from different backgrounds, at the same time, at the same place, a few miles away from the epicenter of the quake, at the mercy of the next earthquake. It felt as if we had a new family.

In conclusion, I asked Alice Campbell what advice she had for people at risk for earthquakes. She said: “Make sure your gas is turned off and make sure your gas tank and water tanks are secured. If you are expecting an earthquake, place all your tall objects flat on the floor. Use museum putty to secure fragile items on shelves. After an earthquake, when you open cabinet doors, proceed very slowly because things will have rolled against them and will be ready to fall on the floor. Have a list of phone numbers and emails of all your neighbors to make sure they are okay. Organize a neighborhood visiting team.”

It is amazing how adversity brings people together. Here we reported on the impact of 2 major earthquakes, but it could have been any kind of natural disaster.

What was vital for people was their family’s support, their friends’ and neighbors’ help and the solidarity between communities.

The worst of nature brought out the best in people.

More from Chris Gilbert, M.D., Ph.D.
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