Little damage from powerful California quake
Was it just luck?
October 17, 1999
JOSHUA TREE, California (CNN) -- California had a big one Saturday -- an earthquake seismologists rated at magnitude 7.0, the strongest quake to shake the state since 1992.
But skyscrapers stayed upright, major roads remained open and there were no serious injuries.
In fact, most Californians seemed unfazed.
"This is just a little rumble, rattle," one resident said.
Only a handful of injuries were reported, and structural damage was minimal. The biggest problem caused by the quake was the derailment of an Amtrak train traveling near the quake's epicenter. Four passengers suffered minor injuries.
Elsewhere, three other people were slightly hurt: An elderly woman broke her leg getting out of bed and two people were cut with broken glass.
The quake also cracked a few roads, damaged some bridges and tossed groceries off store shelves. The temblor was felt in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.
But why didn't the 'big one' cause bigger problems? Seismologists credit luck and location.
"It's entirely the location. There's nothing out there. It's a Marine base on one side, and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land on the other," said Kate Hutton from the California Institute of Technology.
The quake struck at 2:46 a.m. PDT (5:46 a.m. EDT) in the Mojave Desert, more than 100 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. There's not much there but the Marine base near Twentynine Palms. The Marines suspended exercises using live artillery, so geologists could inspect the area.
"The good news is that not many people live here," said Lucy Jones, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
But it could have been a very different story.
Things could have been worse
"Thank God it took place in a remote area where there appears to be no tremendous damage or personal injuries," said Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.
"Had this occurred under downtown Los Angles, a magnitude-7.0 quake would cause major damage," said David Weide, a professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
To get an idea of what could have happened, Californians only have to look at their own recent history and at other large quakes around the world in recent months.
In 1992, a magnitude-7.3 Landers earthquake in California killed one person, injured 400 and caused nearly $100 million in damage. The Hector quake hit about 30 miles northeast of the Landers epicenter.
The 6.7-magnitude Northridge quake in Los Angeles killed 72 people and caused $25 billion in damage in 1994.
Saturday's quake came on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. That quake registered 7.1 and killed 63 people.
Last month, a 7.2-magnitude quake rocked Taiwan, killing more than 2,300 people and causing an estimated $9.2 billion in damage. In August, a 7.4-magnitude temblor killed at least 17,000 people in western Turkey, and in September, a 5.9 quake in Greece killed 143 people.
Seismologists say there is no connection among the large quakes.
Trying to guess when the ground will move
Knowing that major quakes are likely, Californians have taken steps to try to minimize damage.
Quake-conscious building codes have been in place in California since the 1930s, after a 6.3-magnitude earthquake in Long Beach killed 115 people, many of them school children.
These days, experts are mapping seismic hazard zones. And seismologists say new research is under way to develop technology that could provide earthquake warnings.
"One of the things that technology might get us is a number of seconds warning that the quake has already started, which might have stopped that train, for example," Hutton said.
Thousands more aftershocks from Saturday's quake are expected, but there is only a 5 percent chance that a quake bigger than the original will strike in the next week, said Lucy Jones, chief seismologist at the U.S. Geological Survey's office in Pasadena.
Trains rolling again
An Amtrak spokesman said Sunday that the tracks where the train derailed Saturday had passed a safety inspection and that normal service had resumed.
The Southwest Chief was carrying 155 passengers and 16 crew members from Chicago to Los Angeles when it was rocked off the tracks. The four passengers with minor injuries were taken to the hospital, the others were transported to their next destination by bus. The train cars were hauled away for repairs.
Correspondent Jennifer Auther contributed to this report, written by Amanda Barnett.
Desert earthquake rattles Southwest
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