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Will the latest NorCal earthquake revive the seismic safety debate?

A home is seen damaged after an earthquake in Rio Dell, Calif., Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022.
Kent Porter
A home is seen damaged after an earthquake in Rio Dell, Calif., Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022.

Is California prepared for The Big One?

That was the question undoubtedly on many residents’ minds after a 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck Humboldt County in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, resulting in two deaths and at least 12 injuries; damaging homes, roads, bridges, water and gas lines and other critical infrastructure; and leaving about 57,000 PG&E customers without power and many without water.

The quake occurred in a rural stretch of Northern California known as the Mendocino Triple Junction, where three tectonic plates meet — but many residents said this temblor felt different than those that usually rattle the area.

  • Eureka resident Dan Dixon told the Associated Press: “It was probably the most violent earthquake we have felt in the 15 years I have lived here.”
  • Arcata resident Amy Uyeki told the Los Angeles Times: “When it was happening, I thought it was the Big One, because we haven’t felt anything this strong.”

Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services — who is retiring at the end of the year after a decade on the job — noted at a Tuesday press conference that “we live in earthquake country. … This is another example of the fact that earthquakes can occur at any time.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who declared a state of emergency in Humboldt County to support the emergency response, said in a statement that state agencies are working with local and tribal governments to provide shelter, food and water; assess damage to buildings and roadways; restore power; aid local hospitals, some of which lost power and were operating on generators; and monitor seismic activity.

Officials also touted early alert systems that helped notify more than 3 million people by phone that an earthquake was coming. About 270,000 people were notified via the MyShake app funded by the state Office of Emergency Services, while most of the rest were Android users who automatically receive earthquake alerts, according to the Los Angeles Times. Some Californians far from the epicenter were also alerted by a shrill alarm that shook them from bed around 2:30 a.m., prompting frustration.

  • Richard Allen, director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory and a leader of the team that developed the MyShake software, told the San Francisco Chronicle: “Earthquake early warning is never going to be perfect. We very rapidly come up with our best estimate of the magnitude, and we send out a warning to anyone in the zone that would normally feel shaking.”
  • Ghilarducci said: “The system did operate as we had hoped, and (as) we’ve been working to design.”

It’s the latest indication that emergency cell phone alerts have generally proven effective for the state. During the summer heat wave, the Newsom administration decided to send emergency texts to 27 million Californians urging them to conserve energy — a move that brought the state back from the brink of power outages.

Meanwhile, California is quickly approaching a 2030 deadline by which hospitals will be required to be capable of operating as normal after a massive earthquake — or risk being shut down by the state. Hospital groups estimate the required upgrades could cost more than $100 billion, not including financing, and could result in facilities being closed in underserved communities.

In August, an unlikely alliance — the California Hospital Association and the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West — tried to broker a last-minute deal that would have delayed the 2030 deadline while also raising the minimum wage for some health care workers to $25 per hour. The deal fizzled due to a lack of time, Jan Emerson-Shea, vice president of external affairs for the hospital association, said at the time.

  • Emerson-Shea told me Tuesday: “Hospitals have spent over 20 years and billions of dollars to make sure that buildings are safe” and will remain standing after a major earthquake. “Now it’s a conversation about what services make sense to continue to be available in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.”

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.