PALM SPRINGS — The strongest earthquake to hit Southern California in seven years jolted this desert area early Tuesday, causing widespread power outages, buckling highways, triggering rock slides and swaying buildings from the Nevada state line to the Mexican border.
Four people were hospitalized with earthquake-related injuries and a 96-year-old man was found dead in a recreational vehicle park in North Palm Springs. Authorities said, however, that the man may have died hours before the temblor hit.
The California Aqueduct was damaged in two places and more than a billion gallons of water had to be diverted into a desert lake bed.
Centered in a barren area of the Coachella Valley 12 miles northwest of here, the quake, measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale, struck at 2:21 a.m., shaking millions of Californians abruptly awake.
Authorities estimated damage at $2 million, a figure that might have been much higher if the epicenter had not been in a sparsely populated area, scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey office at Caltech said. Moreover, most structures in the area were built after earthquake-safe building codes were implemented in 1933.
"The main problem was confusion," Palm Springs police spokesman Fred Donnell said. "The public was scared."
Sharply Felt Jolts
Lasting from 20 to 30 seconds, the soft tremors mounted into sharply felt jolts, setting off a cacophony of car alarms in three counties, knocking mobile homes off their foundations and swaying high-rise buildings in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
"It was like a giant was behind the house shaking the whole thing," said Roxana Melland, who lives with her husband, Scott, and two young daughters in the Painted Hills area near the quake's epicenter. "Our bed slammed from one wall to the other and back again. The furniture went everywhere. The washer and dryer wandered out of the bedroom into the kitchen."
Sgt. Mike McCracken of the California Highway Patrol office in Indio said the quake tumbled television monitors off the walls. "I thought we were all goners," he said.
Boulders as big as cars pelted down on highways near Palm Springs, closing them to traffic for a time, and periodic blackouts were reported throughout the Coachella Valley in the morning. As many as 80,000 customers were temporarily without electricity but full power was restored by mid-afternoon.
General Telephone officials said 30,000 calls were made in and out of the Palm Springs area from 2:30 to 3 a.m. alone, more than 50 times the normal rate.
The quake was the sharpest to strike Southern California since 1979, when a temblor measuring 6.4 hit the Imperial Valley, injuring 91 people and causing $30 million in property damage.
The violent February, 1971, quake that struck the San Fernando Valley killed 65 people and injured 1,000. That temblor, measuring 6.5 on the Richter scale, caused more than $500 million in property damage. Aftershocks, some with magnitudes of as much as 5.7, continued for more than a week.
Each unit of the Richter scale represents a tenfold increase in ground motion.
On Tuesday, hundreds of aftershocks, some with magnitudes between 3 and 4, but most not noticeable, were recorded throughout the day, said seismologist Thomas Heaton, chief scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey office at Caltech in Pasadena. The shocks were felt as far away as San Diego.
The quake occurred along the the San Andreas Fault system, and scientists pinpointed it midway between the Banning and Mission Creek faults. The sharp jolt felt by residents of the area corresponded to a two-inch sideways slippage along the faults, scientists said.
One of the areas hardest hit was Whitewater Canyon, near the epicenter. Bruce Mckenzie, 62, of Huntington Beach was visiting an adobe cottage there owned by his family when the rumbling began. Hours later, Mckenzie stood amid the remnants of a crumbled chimney, near walls crisscrossed by six-inch cracks and said of the once-charming building: "I think now it's trash."
Fire officials in Riverside County blamed the earthquake for two small brush fires in the San Jacinto Mountains and a blaze at a Cathedral City glass company. The $45,000 fire inside the Cathedral Mirror & Glass Co. may have been sparked by a quake-caused electrical short circuit, Capt. Dan Proctor of the Riverside County Fire Department said.
Brush Fires Set
About 30 acres of vegetation were burned in the Cabazon Peak area west of Palm Springs, possibly caused when friction from rock slides sparked the dry brush. A fire started by fallen power lines blackened more brush in the Chino Canyon area.
Falling rock forced closure of California 111 from Interstate 10 leading into Palm Springs. It remained closed to southbound traffic through Tuesday night.
All but one lane of California 74, east of Cranston, was closed for most of the morning and California 243 was blocked for a time from near Idyllwild to Banning; both highways were reopened by noon.