City Hall’s flag is at full mast today, barely moving in the morning stillness. The sun is out and the air is motionless, what some people like to call “earthquake weather.” 100 years ago today, the City of Fort Bragg was virtually leveled by an earthquake of considerable magnitude. One of the few houses left standing was the one I’m sitting in at this very moment.
Fort Bragg, Point Arena, and other north coast towns were devastated in 1906, because the earthquake was epicentered just off our shore. Photographs from the period show utter destruction, houses torn apart like matchwood, the earth in upheaval. Yet most of the pictures also show people determined to rebuild–the mill had already burned down once, falling down wasn’t going to stop anyone. Much of the lumber which rebuilt California in 1906 came from the hills which surround me, covered in an uneasy cluster of second growth. The trees are waiting.
Of course, the city which is remembered is San Francisco.
San Francisco is having numerous commemorative events to remember the earthquake and fire of 1906 this week, and this morning there was a ceremony at 5:12 am, the moment the earthquake hit San Francisco. San Francisco does well to remember the earthquake–poor emergency planning and no sense of leadership were the primary causes for the destruction of the city in 1906, not the shuddering of the earth. What happened in San Francisco in 1906 speaks eloquently to the need to have a strong emergency plan and a clear chain of command. What happened in New Orleans in 2005 speaks to the same–apparently we do not learn from our history.
Fort Bragg, I note, did nothing to commemorate the earthquake, perhaps because we don’t have a case of earthquake love.
I’ve lived in California for much of my life, and when I wasn’t living in California I was living in a seismically active part of the Aegean. Earthquakes and their assorted phenomena are intimately familiar to me. California and earthquakes are like Seattle and rain. There are things which are force of habit to me, but alien to people from more geologically stable parts of the world–I always build in lips on cabinets so that things can’t slide out. I don’t have anything suspended above my bed–heavy art, mirrors, what have you. My bookshelves are anchored and so are my heavy paintings. I live with constant knowledge that in the next moment, there could be a colossal earthquake, and I would prefer to increase my chances of survival. I have a well thought out evacuation plan, because I am aware that to rely upon the government for assistance could equal death.
Over my lifetime, I’ve probably experienced thousands of earthquakes. Most of them were negligible. Friends visiting from the East Coast sometimes complain of restless sleep in my house–I suspect because of the constant dancing, shuffling, shifting of the earth beneath their bed. I remember 1994, though, and Northridge. I remember sitting on the railing of our old house in Caspar, reading Watership Down, and falling off into the garden because that old porch railing betrayed me at the last instant. Few survivors of the 1906 quake are still alive, and those that are don’t remember much. Numerous descriptions of the earthquake exist, to tell us how long the shaking lasted and what it felt like.
But you can never truly know what an earthquake is, and what the experience is like, until the ground moves beneath your feet, until you are jolted awake by the groaning of your house, until the earth is not where you remember leaving it.
California is fault-ridden. Particularly in the Northern Portion, bordered by the Gorda Plate, which is in the process of being subducted under the North American plate. To the north of the Gorda is the Juan De Fuca, and there is a lot of seismic activity around these three shifting pieces of the earth’s crust. This tri-lateral fault is called the Mendocino Fault Zone, and it is also where the San Andreas fault runs out to sea and splinters into numerous fraction zones. I live along the transform boundary of the Gorda Plate, and not far from the San Andreas either. In the last week, Mendocino County experienced over 36 seismic events.
If you fly over California, you can actually see the major faults, dark slashes against the landscape. It’s an awesome and somewhat frightening sight, one far removed from mayoral ceremonies at memorial markers. California owes its striking beauty to its geologic makeup, and we also owe our undoing to the same. Someday, it’s coming.