Over the Hill

In earthquake country, threat always looms in the background

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer tours the San Simeon Earthquake damage in Paso Robles on Jan. 9, 2004. Walking past the Acorn building with Boxer are former Atascadero Mayor George Luna, left, and former Paso Robles Mayor Frank Mecham.
U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer tours the San Simeon Earthquake damage in Paso Robles on Jan. 9, 2004. Walking past the Acorn building with Boxer are former Atascadero Mayor George Luna, left, and former Paso Robles Mayor Frank Mecham. ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

An article in last Saturday’s Tribune was headlined “When will the next big quake hit?” The picture with the article showed the ruins of the old clock-tower building in Paso Robles.

It had stood for many years at 12th and Park streets.

It collapsed Dec. 22, 2003, during the 6.6 magnitude San Simeon Earthquake. Two women working in a dress shop in that building were killed. A brick wall fell on them as they tried to run outside to safety. They were Jennifer Lynn Myrick, 20, and Marilyn Frost-Zafuto, 55.

I vividly remember that quake. A man was installing our new garage-door. He and I were talking when he suddenly said, “Look at that!” The metal track he had partially installed was now wagging back and forth. I thought, “earthquake,” and rushed inside to my wife, Mamie. She and I stood hugging in our office doorway until the shaking stopped. Neither we nor the garage door installer were injured.

We were lucky that our house was built in 1980 to earthquake-resistant standards, unlike the clock-tower building, which was erected in 1892. I also read later that standing in a doorway isn’t a good idea either. Today’s recommended earthquake survival strategy is to duck and cover, preferably under a desk or sturdy table, or against an interior wall.

Later that day, I went downtown to see the damage. At City Hall, I saw the hot, sulfur-spring water bubbling up in the parking lot. It got ankle deep before running down the driveway into the street. The ancient “main spring” had come back to life.

Workers with power excavating equipment dug a deep pit out of a large portion of the parking lot. They were looking for a pipe to cap or a stream to block, but they found none. It took the city years to get federal and state permission to pipe the sulfur water into the Salinas River. The pit was eventually filled and the parking lot repaved.

Elsewhere in Paso Robles, the main building at Flamson Middle School was rebuilt. Other buildings and houses were repaired and reinforced. Today, there’s no earthquake damage to be seen.

But other earthquakes will happen. We live near a continuous slow-motion collision between two huge sections of the Earth’s crust. Those sections are called the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate. Their jostling of each other causes most of our earthquakes.

Their pushing and shoving also caused the San Andreas Fault to form between them. If you live on the western side of that fault, you’re on the Pacific Plate. On the eastern side, you’re on the North American Plate. Around here we’re mostly on the Pacific Plate.

We’re told the Pacific Plate is sliding under the North American Plate. It’s called subduction. But don’t worry: I checked on it in 2009 and learned the Pacific Plate had moved just 9.29 inches in the previous 5 1/2 years.

Phil Dirkx’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column appears here every week. Reach Dirkx at 805-238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.

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