Getting ready for the big one

April 08, 2002|By LAURA MITCHELL

Staff Writer

The Imperial Valley has a history of rocking and rolling and it has nothing to do with music.

Some of the largest earthquakes ever recorded in the state and even the country have been in what is today Imperial County.

In February 1892, the Valley's strongest earthquake, magnitude-7.8, was so powerful it destroyed buildings in San Diego County, documents from the U.S. Geological Survey state.

According to the Southern California earthquake data center, on June 22, 1915, two earthquakes shook the Valley. The first was a 6.1-magnitude quake and the second was larger, registering 6.3 on the Richter scale. Together they caused six deaths and almost $1 million in damage.


On May 18, 1940, a magnitude-6.9 earthquake resulted in six deaths and at least $6 million in damage, not including crops lost due to damaged irrigation canals, center documents state.

The 1979 earthquake

The most recent large earthquake, a magnitude-6.5 quake, shook the Valley on Oct. 15, 1979. Center documents state damage was estimated at $30 million. The damage amount does not include the value of crops lost due to irrigation canal damage.

Imperial County Fire Chief Joe R. Buzo remembers the 1979 quake.

"I was a firefighter at that time. The quake hit us in the afternoon and ceiling tiles and lights at the station came down on top of us. A light fixture barely missed me," Buzo said.

The first priority was to remove the debris from the fire trucks and equipment and move them into open space. Then the emergency operation center needed to be restored, Buzo said. Debris needed to be cleared and generators started to get communications. That took about 15 to 30 minutes, he said.

"As soon as the dispatch center was running, we called for outside assistance. From the shake alone, we knew we would need help," Buzo said.

"One of the first calls we made was to the Imperial tank farm because of a gasoline leak," he said. "We spent most of the night trying to take care of that tank."

Firefighters from Imperial and San Diego counties were trying to keep the vapors under control while stopping the leak, Buzo said. He was there until midnight, then went back to the fire station to do maintenance and cleanup.

"Late, late that night one of the secretaries told me she was finally able to get through to my family and that everyone was OK," he said. "I was here two days before I was able to go home and see my family, but that's common with people in emergency services."

Buzo said he and the other firefighters were fortunate the chief instructed the secretaries to get in touch with their family members.

"You think about your family, but there is so much going on. Knowing they are OK is enough to keep you going," he said.

Current earthquake activity

Buzo said the Imperial and Mexicali valleys have a couple earthquake faults and there has been a lot of activity lately, mostly from the Cerro Prieto fault in Mexico, just southeast of Calexico.

The valleys have been shaken for the past few months by small- to medium-sized earthquakes centered in Mexico. An earthquake in February was caused by the Laguna Salada fault line in Mexico.

The Imperial fault in Imperial County is responsible for the 1940 and 1979 earthquakes, according to the Southern California earthquake data center. Documents on the Imperial fault from the center state it is "a remarkably active fault, historically."

Knowing this is an active valley for earthquakes, Buzo said people need to be well-prepared.

An earthquake can't be predicted, but people can be prepared. Buzo said it's important to have an emergency kit that includes:

· food and water for at least 72 hours (a gallon of water per person);

· flashlight and portable radio with extra batteries;

· first-aid kits;

· fire extinguisher;

· blankets;

· extra clothing;

· money;

· barbecue or propane grill for cooking, as long as you know there is no gas leak;

· cooking pot, pans and utensils.

"You can also secure heavy appliances and tall bookshelves; anything that can fall on top of you during an earthquake," Buzo said.

People also should learn how to locate and turn off their gas, water and electricity, he said. It's not always necessary, but it's good to know how to do it if needed. Gas leaks can cause explosions.

Buzo suggests family members have a communication plan. Land phones and cell phones often don't work after a strong earthquake. People need to plan ahead on how they will contact each other, he said.

During the shaking of earthquake, Buzo said people should try to stand in a doorway or crouch and cover their heads near a wall or under a heavy table. People who are outside should stay away from buildings and power lines.

The best place to be after an earthquake is home, unless the building's structure was damaged. Buzo recommends people leave a note at home if they go so family and friends will know where to find them.

There are always aftershocks to watch for, too, he said.

KXO radio station, 107.5 FM and 1230 AM, will carry emergency communications for the county, Buzo said.

The month of April is earthquake preparedness month.

>> On the Web:

The Federal Emergency Management Web site offers earthquake preparedness information:

>> Staff Writer Laura Mitchell can be reached at 337-3452 or

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