The Rumblings of San Fernando: 50 Years of Advancements and Much to Prepare for Ahead

Crews asses a structurally demolished building due to the Sylmar earthquake in 1971

Early in the morning on February 9, 1971, the San Fernando earthquake (also known as the Sylmar earthquake) struck without warning.  

The event was one in a series that affected Los Angeles county in the late 20th century.  Stemming from the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, its thrust awoke Angelenos at a magnitude of 6.6.

Damage was severe in the northern San Fernando Valley with chasms created amid city streets and neighborhoods.  Consequently, infrastructure crumbled and homes and businesses were uplifted from foundations.

According to the United States Geological Survey, this earthquake was the worst to hit an urban area of California since the 1933 magnitude-6.4 Long Beach quake. It led to 64 deaths and more than $500 million in damage. It prompted Governor Ronald Reagan to declare Los Angeles County a disaster area and President Richard Nixon to send Vice President Spiro Agnew to inspect the area.  

After the San Fernando earthquake, the State of California enacted the Alquist Priolo Act to limit construction along faults that likely caused earthquakes able to rupture the ground surface in the last 11,000 years. 

On the federal level, Congress renewed its interest in earthquake safety, held hearings and introduced new bills to establish a national earthquake research program. Congress eventually passed the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977, which led to the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, or NEHRP, and was pivotal in helping establish what is now the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program. 

Over the years, NEHRP agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey, made research and policy recommendations that in part contributed to the City of Los Angeles enacting an ordinance in 2015 to retrofit weaker first-story wood-frame buildings and non-ductile, or brittle, concrete buildings, which are both more vulnerable to collapse during strong shaking. In 2013, San Francisco enacted the Mandatory Soft Story Retrofit Program, which was based in part on work sponsored by NEHRP and on the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

LA-area resident, Jacquelyn T. is no stranger to earthquakes and as a Californian, she is aware that we all brave nature’s ability to shake us to our core.  It is a risk we take every day.

Living in Northern California at the time of the San Fernando earthquake, she was deeply impacted by the disaster, worried about friends who lived in a condo in the San Gabriel Valley.  As a concerned friend, she spent days trying to get in touch with the couple, knowing she could easily share the same fate of displacement and destruction.  

Later in 1989, Jacquelyn faced a 6.9 magnitude earthquake head on.  “When the Loma Prieta quake happened, I was actually on the bridge that crossed the southern portion of San Francisco Bay (the Dumbarton Bridge is south of the San Mateo Bridge),” said Jacquelyn.  “That was the first time I had ever experienced a quake while driving, and if that never happens again, I will be a happy non-camper!”

In 1994 Jacquelyn was living in the Valley on Coldwater Canyon between Magnolia and Riverside Drive when the Northridge earthquake occurred, “My building suffered superficial damage but the buildings on both sides and across the street were red-tagged!  A lot of folks camped out in the park on Tujunga near the library and I was without phone service for three days so I couldn’t make outgoing calls.”

Jacquelyn is proof that no matter where you live or work as a Californian, you are exposed to natural hazards. Unlike storm events, earthquakes occur without warning and affect everyone in a region within seconds. 

Jacquelyn encourages everyone to push past the struggle to forget the terrors experienced in earthquakes and empower yourself with community and emergency preparedness.  As her story highlights, it is important to have a distant contact, an evacuation plan and an awareness of one’s community.  The Earthquake Country Alliance can help you understand your risk, and equip you with the right steps to minimize or avoid injuries, damage, and long-term detrimental consequences.

Important Preparedness Tools for Angelenos:

LA City's Emergency Management Department has created the Ready Your LA Neighborhood (RYLAN)  program that is geared towards individual, family and neighborhood preparedness. 

During a major or catastrophic event, emergency responders may be overwhelmed and might take time to respond to you. As a matter of fact, your neighbors may be your closest source of help. To learn more, visit:  https://emergency.lacity.org/rylan

In a disaster, there are never too many ways to receive a possibly life-saving alert. That’s why the City of Los Angeles will use multiple ways to reach you if there is a threat to your life or property. The best way to ensure you receive alerts is NotifyLA,  register here: https://emergency.lacity.org/notifyla.

The MyShake app -- developed by the UC Berkeley Seismology Lab, sponsored by the State of California Office of Emergency Services -- is the first app powered by ShakeAlert® to provide statewide earthquake early warning alerts. The app is one of the delivery modes of the California Earthquake Early Warning System. MyShake is available in both English and Spanish. Residents who want to receive earthquake early warning notifications should download the MyShake app, which is available on the Apple store and on Google Play:  https://earthquake.lacity.org/shakealertla.