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Why we rolled with the punch

The state learned its lessons from previous quakes, which made the 5.4 in Chino Hills merely a nuisance.

July 30, 2008|Joel Rubin, David Pierson and Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writers
  • An employee sweeps merchandise that fell from the shelves inside a Kmart in Chino Hills after a strong quake shook the area.
An employee sweeps merchandise that fell from the shelves inside a Kmart… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

The earthquake that rattled Southern California on Tuesday might have caused devastation if it had taken place in some parts of the world, but relatively strict building codes ensured that most of the region's infrastructure -- homes, schools, freeways and rail systems -- rolled with the magnitude 5.4 punch, which was centered near Chino Hills and felt as far away as Las Vegas.

As aftershocks continued to reverberate, officials inspected airports, freeways and buildings and reported little damage from the quake, which occurred at 11:42 a.m. and was the first significant temblor in more than a decade to be centered in an urban area of California. The biggest strains were felt in phone and Internet systems, which buckled because of overwhelming demand in the minutes after the jolt.

The quake struck hardest in an area of San Bernardino County that has seen massive growth in population and housing in the last decade. That meant that the buildings shaken the hardest were mostly built under California's strictest building codes, updated in 1997 in response to the 6.7 Northridge quake of 1994. That kept damage to a minimum.

Only minor injuries were reported, three at an outpatient medical clinic in Brea and five at a building in the Wilshire district of Los Angeles.

"The most interesting thing to us is that this is the first one we've had in a populated area for a long time," seismologist Kate Hutton of Caltech said. "People have forgotten what an earthquake feels like. We should look at this as an earthquake drill for the Big One that will come one day."

Although moderate in intensity, the quake rumbled up from a relatively shallow depth, making it feel sharper, stronger and scarier than its magnitude suggested, especially in areas close to the epicenter.

"It's the first time in my life I actually got under my desk," said Anaheim Police Sgt. Ken Seymour, a native Southern Californian.

Robert Heded, 32, a Time Warner technician who lives in Culver City, was about 30 feet up a telephone pole at La Cienega and Pico boulevards in Los Angeles when the quake hit.

"I just sat there and waited, kinda rode it out," he said a while later as he bought an energy drink at a 7-Eleven, still dressed in his reflective safety vest.

The lines were "swaying a lot more than usual, about four feet from side to side," he said. "I wasn't sure what was happening, if it was an earthquake or if it was me." Heded said he finished up his work, still strapped to the pole in his safety gear. Then made his way down.

"It was bad," said Nirmala Dawson, the director of the Montessori School of Chino. She said the school performs frequent earthquake drills. "But at that moment, to be honest, we forgot them. We just evacuated."

No one was injured, she said, but a few children were frightened by the shaking. Then, after the quake, phones began ringing off the hook with calls from parents.

That nearly universal instinct to call loved ones -- or someone -- strained the capacity of the regional phone network, perhaps instructive for officials planning emergency responses to the next massive earthquake.

Verizon lost some phone service Tuesday in several quake-affected areas. "We have some outages on our land-line side," said Jonathan Davies, Verizon spokesman. "We're not sure yet if it's physical damage or just due to high call volumes."

AT&T's cellphone service was spotty in some areas. Sitting in a Starbucks in Pasadena, Paul Roberts was able to get calls on his cellphone. "But I am sitting here with my buddy, who has AT&T, too, and he can't make outgoing calls," said Roberts, a student at Art Center College of Design.

The Los Angeles Times' website,, was briefly unavailable to many users when heavy traffic swamped its servers immediately after the earthquake. Full access returned in about 10 minutes, according to Meredith Artley, the executive editor of the site. It had about 630,000 page views in the hour after the temblor, roughly double the usual amount.

The earthquake slowed, but for the most part didn't stop, the region's transportation network.

A section of the southbound Interstate 5 near Bake Parkway in Irvine was briefly closed to traffic so that Caltrans workers could inspect it, according to Tom Marshall, spokesman for the California Highway Patrol. No problems were found.

No disruptions were reported on Los Angeles County highways. Raja Mitwasi, chief deputy director of the Caltrans office in Los Angeles, said Caltrans was inspecting highway bridges and pavement, but had not found any signs of damage.

The biggest delays were on passenger trains, which were slowed to allow inspectors access to tracks.

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