San Simeon Earthquake shattered the calm of a sunny December morning in 2003

Pan Jewelers after the San Simeon Earthquake. Photo taken Dec. 22, 2003.
Pan Jewelers after the San Simeon Earthquake. Photo taken Dec. 22, 2003. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

In many ways, Dec. 22, 2003, began like any other day in San Luis Obispo County.

“It was a nice morning,” said Nick Sherwin, owner of Pan Jewelers, which had once been located in the now refurbished Acorn building in Paso Robles. “It was beautiful, sunny and calm. I had just gotten mochas for everyone and brought them back around 10:45 a.m.”

At 11:15 a.m., lives were forever changed when a 6.6-magnitude temblor struck the Central Coast, rocking communities countywide, and leaving death and destruction in its wake.

Ann’s Clothing Store employees Jennifer Myrick, 19, and Marilyn Frost-Zafuto, 55, died when the iconic Acorn building collapsed.

The powerful earthquake was also responsible for 49 injuries, 50 buildings destroyed — 25 of them homes and 25 of them businesses.

An assessment of the San Simeon Earthquake released in March 2004 by the county’s Office of Emergency Services estimated local financial damages at more than $239 million. At the request of then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former President Bush declared San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties to be major federal disaster areas.

In the city of Paso Robles, which bore much of the impact, the temblor devastated many local businesses, and caused two underground sulfur hot springs to erupt. At Flamson Middle School, it created large cracks in the auditorium, classrooms and library. Rather than return students to the 84-year-old building, the school was torn down. A $17 million building, built to look like the previous one, has replaced it.

Norma Moye, the city’s Main Street Association director, said at the time that the earthquake was a “nightmare,” for the town.

The nightmare, however, reached far beyond that city’s boundaries.

Widespread damage

The Atascadero Administration Building, with its rotunda top, also received significant damage, resulting in the relocation of city offices to a former bowling alley building at Colony Square. After roughly $43 million in reconstruction and renovation, it reopened in August, in time for the city’s centennial celebrations.

Mission San Miguel was damaged as well, and while some restoration work has been completed, it is expected to continue until 2015.

In Morro Bay, a new $3 million fire station at 715 Harbor St. was built to replace the old structures that were badly damaged in the earthquake.

In the city of Guadalupe, there was damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure.

Significant damage to infrastructure occurred in the city of Oceano as well because shaking from the quake caused liquefaction, which loosened sandy soil.

The earthquake spared most of the artifacts at Hearst Castle, with only a dozen damaged. The city of San Luis Obispo also remained mostly unscathed, although the quake set a sizable seismic retrofit program in motion.

Through it all, the county learned that it was not immune to natural disaster or tragedy, and it led county officials to make some changes in an effort to respond more effectively to emergencies. Ron Alsop, the county’s emergency services manager, said the response to the San Simeon Earthquake went well, as the city of Paso Robles had just updated its emergency response plan and the “county had a generally effective response plan.”

“One of the reasons it went as well as it did, despite the tragedy of two lives being lost, is that it wasn’t that big of an earthquake and we were able to handle it with the resources we had,” he said.

In its assessment of the earthquake response, FEMA noted that the response to the San Simeon Earthquake by various agencies — local, county, state, federal and volunteer — was a “textbook example of how a large, complex, multi-jurisdiction emergency can be managed in an efficient, effective manner.”

Alsop acknowledged, however, that the response was not perfect. The county could have done a better job with its own assessment and providing detailed documentation of the disaster, which is needed to justify state and federal assistance.

The second lesson was improved public communication. It took a few hours before solid information was disseminated to the public, which is “a long time in a disaster,” he said.

“At that time, we were getting calls from around the world, and instead of proactively putting out local information, we reacted,” Alsop said. “We dropped the ball on that one, and that will never happen again.”

Community unified

Supervisor Frank Mecham, then mayor of Paso Robles, believes the county has become better and stronger because of the experience.

At the time of the earthquake, Mecham was in his office on 12th Street and thought initially that the shaking was a gas explosion. When it stopped, he took off downtown and saw the decimated Acorn building and crushed vehicles.

Despite the chaotic scene, Mecham was impressed by how much others were willing to give of themselves.

“The community knew it had to come together and help each other, and they did,” he said.

Although people have become more aware of the potential for disaster, Mecham fears that short memories will lead to complacency, and he is now working with Sheriff Ian Parkinson on a task force to make San Luis Obispo the most emergency-prepared county in the nation. The goal of the public awareness campaign is to encourage residents to have plans and disaster kits in place in the event of a disaster.

“I’ve said it before,” he said. “We live in earthquake country, and it’s not a question of if, but when.”

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