On Tuesday (March 21st) a “rosary” of earthquakes occurred here in the San Francisco Bay Area, centered 4 miles outside of the suburb of Moraga, consisting of 14 minor quakes and aftershocks. Here in the city, about 15 miles away, I only felt the first one, a 3.7 on the Richter scale; the rest descended in magnitude.
When most people think of earthquakes, they’re media-spectacularly programmed to picture great devastation, such as was experienced exactly 100 years ago here (“The Big One”: 7.7). But the very vast majority of quakes (about 850.000 per year WORLDWIDE under 4.3 magnitude) go undetected by most of their respective local populations. Earthquakes of such minor intensity are very frequent occurrences in these parts. Indeed, when I lived in the geysers-region of the northern wine country, about 2 hours north of the city, I’d feel them a few times a week.
Other unusual geologic phenomena there are the hot springs, heat fissures and fumaroles – the latter being not-quite-geysers, but areas over which steam is emitted from the earth. My “driveway” was actually a steep dirt road about ¼ mile long, and when I’d walk up at the end of the day or after dark, I’d cross many “hot spots”/fissures. I equate the feeling to that of swimming through areas of warmth in lake water, perhaps due to greater reflection of sunlight from the bottom. It was just a normal fact of life to walk across fissured ground every day and “feel the heat”.
People who live far away from earthquake-prone areas wonder how one could possibly choose to live within them. I can’t speak for residents of other such zones, but, here in the Bay Area, they’re usually no big deal.
When I lived on West 86th Street in Manhattan, there was a bump in the road just before the turn onto Central Park West, over which flatbed trucks would thunder in the middle of the night and rattle the windows; now THAT was a heart-pounder, nothing like the, frankly, very gentle rocking of a minor quake in the Bay Area.
“What does a minor quake feel like?” Working with newborns as I do, I’d equate it with what a secure infant feels in its mother’s arms when she gently and ever-so-slightly changes position, whereas those New York flatbeds and their flopping cargo would equate to Mom’s suddenly standing up and dropping a clock radio.
Earthquakes of greater magnitude here are very rare. The last “big one” was 16 years ago (“Loma Prieta”, 10/89, Richter 7.0) and, even so, it was nowhere near as devastating as the hurricanes that frequently ravage the gulf states, or the fires that annually lay waste the Santa Ana region, or the swelteringly humid heat waves that afflict most of the US every summer, or the tornadoes of the Midwest (now THAT’S scary.)
I was in Sonoma County at the time of that “biggie”, sitting on the floor, when it began to move, rolling in gentle, undulating waves for about 5 seconds, and ending with a somewhat sharper jolt. Light fixtures were gently swinging in the house. I said, “SOMEWHERE this was very big.” We went outside and watched the power lines swing between their poles for about a minute. Then my friend turned on the TV and watched that repetitive footage seen by all a thousand times.
“How can we live here?” Are you kidding? We’re spoiled here! It’s common to hear locals say, “I’m ruined for any other climate.” In San Francisco, the temperature is 55-75 degrees Fahrenheit virtually year-round. We have two “hot” weeks per summer (temps 75-80 or slightly higher, with NO humidity).
Here’s the overview: The “Mediterranean” climate here consists of two major seasons: Dry and Sometimes-Rainy. During the Dry Season (approx. April to November) there is absolutely no rain, and this is normal. We put our umbrellas way up in remote closet corners and bring ‘em down in November to keep handy for the showers that may or may not pass through, a couple of times a week, during Sometimes-Rainy. Granted, this region is, for some reason, not nearly as equipped to deal with rain as New York was to cope with blizzards. But we have no “snow days”; there’s no sidewalk- or driveway-shoveling.
And then there are the three subseasons into which the Dry season is divided: Spring, Fog, and Summer.
Spring (March/April through June) is pretty much blue skies and sunshine nonstop, with mild temperatures of 65 to 70. For me, it can get quite boring, as there’s no “weather” to break up the monotony (unless there’s an earthquake). Spring quakes are often accompanied by what many here call “earthquake weather”: A strange (unsettling) balminess in the air. When I get “that Florida feeling”, it’s usually followed by a mild quake, somewhere in this region.
Then, comes July 1st, in rolls the fabled Fog: For many locals (including myself), July/August is the most special time of year here. Having grown up in a temperate clime, I was accustomed to “seasons”. So, after 3 months of beautiful-day-after-beautiful-day, I’m grateful for July’s bracing fog casting its more melancholy mood. It’s called our “natural air-conditioning” and is due to the coastal interruption known as “the Golden Gate” (for which the Bridge is named), through which the entire desert heat basin of the state of California is refreshed from extreme summer heat by ocean-cooled air. July and August in San Francisco and on the Bay can be a full 50-60 degrees cooler than inland! Delicious! And, at this time of year, it can be cooler in San Francisco than at any other time: As low as 50 degrees! BRRRR.
And then comes “Summer”, around Labor day: Six to eight weeks of what other regions consider “Indian” summer. The Pacific High moves off our latitude, the fog lets up, and it’s warm: Pleasantly so, with the stray HOT (over 75) day. At this time of year, the sun is low and strong; exposed south-facing residential windows in the city are often blacked-out in he afternoons, to keep the non-air-conditioned homes behind them comfortable. Summer (“Autumn” in the rest of the hemisphere) is another time of year for the odd quake; indeed our last “Big One” in ’89 occurred in October. As for “Fall Foliage” forget it in San Francisco.
Back to the “Big Ones”: It does depend how far one is from the epicenter. San Francisco damage from the ’89 Loma Prieta quake was surprisingly light. There were a few pockets of serious damage affecting the city, but, compared to the effects of a similar-intensity quake in other world regions’ cities (in Mexico, South America, central Asia, Philippines, etc.) there was a startlingly low death-toll. The news media had a field day/week portraying the city’s one fallen house aflame, the one fallen Bay Bridge section, and, of course, the collapsed section of freeway in the East Bay – over and over and over and over…
My Quake Protocol: When I feel a quake (it lasts a few seconds), I call KCBS radio (“All News All The Time”) and report it, and then I tune in and listen to the reports: There’s usually a quick response on the part of the US Geological Survey in Berkeley, with the details. Tuesday’s 14 quakes (from 3.7 down to 1.0) occurred on the Hayward Fault, and my SF high-rise (“high on a hill”, as the song says) shivered ever-so-slightly. Mama rocks her babies.
It sure beats shoveling!
Thank you, Lord, and, again than you, Lord.