Earthquakes at Home - What is it like?
Emily Hurley
September 18, 2013 in Design Dilemma
Have you ever experienced an earthquake at home? What was your experience like? How did your house fare and how have you prepared for the future?

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Emily Hurley
The first thing you must know about earthquakes, is that they are not all created equally.

As a native Californian, I've been though a fair amount of them and they generally fall into a few categories.

1. "Was that an earthquake?" - those are barely earthquakes followed quickly by my jumping on the website and twitter to confirm what you felt was indeed an earthquake.

2. "Did you feel that??" - smaller earthquakes that are most definitely earthquakes, but are short, don't produce any damage in your home and are usually more exciting than scary.

3. "Oh my God, it's an earthquake!" - earthquakes big enough to require action on your part, whether that is getting to a safer area in your home/office or dodging things as they fall over or out of cupboards.

4. "This might be it." - Those are the earthquakes that cause severe damage over a widespread area. Once you've been in one, you hope to never be in one again.

Most earthquakes I've been through fall into categories 1 and 2, but I've definitely had a 3 a few times, and unfortunately a 4 in 1989 in the Bay Area.

I've actually been very lucky in terms of damage to my own home, but I did lose a chimney in 1989, and had quite a bit of property damage on the interior of the home. Some people had it much, much worse.

What I learned the hard way:

- Make sure your water heater is strapped securely in place
- Houses should be bolted to the foundation they are built upon. If they aren't, fix that.
- Large pieces of tall furniture should be bolted to the wall.
- Don't put anything breakable that you can't live without on open shelving.
- Have tools available to shut off both your water and your gas.

Have you had any experiences? What did you learn?
5 Likes   September 18, 2013 at 9:24AM
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I lived in Bay Area for a few years so earthquakes were nothing unusual. First, know the earthquake drill (where to stay if it happens). In California they do this in schools and teach the kids what to do. Large furniture needs to be secured so that it doesn't fall on anyone. Things that break need to be well placed. Also, if you do decide to buy a house in a place where earthquakes happen, be prepared to fix the walls every few years.
1 Like   Thanked by Emily Hurley    September 18, 2013 at 9:35AM
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Julia Banzon
We live in San Diego county and on Easter Sunday 2010 we experienced a 7.2 ROCKER! Our windows rattled and some CDs fell out of a bookcase but the house held up fine.
0 Likes   Thanked by Emily Hurley    September 18, 2013 at 11:10AM
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Interesting post Emily. In 1989 I felt the Loma Prieta in El Dorado Hills, north of Sacramento just slightly. I noticed it because we hadn't ever felt a quake there, not in the 30 years before or since. I thought a truck hit my house so I ran out to see if the driver was okay and saw nothing there. I didn't realize it was a quake until I saw the horrible news on the TV a few minutes later and couldn't stop crying trying to reach friends in the bay area and getting no answer.
My neighbor here in the bay area has everything bolted and all of her tabletop items stuck with Quakehold. You can't pick up anything, not even her candy dish. She suffered a lot of damage in '89, this side of the street didn't.
I guess people worry about visiting California because of them and Californian's think hurricanes and tornados are worse. This year the fires have been devastating with some of the most beautiful areas of California burnt, National parks, wildlife, homes and lives, and now the poor people being flooded out of their homes in Colo. San Diego had some pretty scary fires a couple of years back. I guess there's always something....
1 Like   Thanked by Emily Hurley    September 18, 2013 at 11:59AM
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Having lived in California surrounded by little and big earthquakes all my life, I just roll with the flow...
Grateful no injuries, and yes, we do attach everything to the walls and know exactly what to do and how to turn off the gas at the street to prevent fires.
We have a meeting place outside to make sure everyone is ok and stay away from windows and trees.
But streets can cave in, too. You just learn to live with it, be prepared and have your emergency kits scattered all around the property as you never know what will fall!
0 Likes   Thanked by Emily Hurley    September 18, 2013 at 12:01PM
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I have lived through a few of them in the 25 years I was in the O.C. The biggest was I think in 1983, and it was my first. My dog jumped up and peed on me, I was ready to move. It was an 8 point something. I stayed and eventually they were far and few between. When we would get one, I would run and check on my son, my husband would run outside and see how much water splashed out of the pool...Men!
2 Likes   Thanked by Emily Hurley    September 18, 2013 at 1:00PM
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As a S.F. Bay Area native, I've experienced the full range of earthquakes, from light temblors to the '89 Loma Prieta, by far the most destructive in my lifetime. One of my employees was killed in the collapse of the double-deck Cypress Freeway structure in Oakland. She was missing for several days and we all dreaded the worst. She was found in her car days later, once they could clear away the tons of concrete debris and rubble that flattened all the unfortunate motorists on the lower deck that day.

After Loma Prieta many of us in the Bay Area changed the way we live in small but important ways. For example:

- Never hang anything over the head of the bed
- Keep a pair of slip on sneakers under the bed in case a nighttime quake leaves shattered glass all around the bed
- Keep a whistle in your car glove compartment
- Know where your gas shut-off valve is and tape a wrench to the pipe
- Maintain water & food supplies for a week
- Keep some cash hidden in your home - ATMs may be out for quite some time
- Keep you car's gas tank at least half full at all times - ditto gas station pumps may be inoperable
- Have a 'family plan' for connecting with a 3rd party relative/friend outside of the region where everyone calls to check in following a quake
- Keep a transistor radio handy as electrical, cable, phone and cell lines may be inoperable

As others have mentioned, it's all common sense stuff that has become standard practice in many California families.

Quite honestly, it's the urban wildfires that frighten me the most, e.g. the Oakland Hills firestorm that happened almost 2 years to the day following Loma Prieta. Unlike earthquakes, at least wildfires can be prevented.
5 Likes   Thanked by Emily Hurley    September 18, 2013 at 1:41PM
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Emily Hurley
I always forget about the cash thing, or end up pilfering from it out of laziness instead of going to the ATM.

So sorry to hear of your loss in Loma Prieta.
1 Like   September 18, 2013 at 1:56PM
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trebinje thanks for posting. You're a good writer. So sorry to hear one of the stories I saw on the news in the days that followed was about your employee. (I always carry water in my car now because of that bridge collapse but hadn't thought about a whistle)
0 Likes   September 18, 2013 at 2:50PM
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Yes!!!!!!!!! I lived in Mexico City September 1985. It was not my first beause as a child I lived the 1957 strong one in Mexico City also, but the 1985 was terrible. It did not stop.Everything moved, buildings collapsed a more than 35, 000 people died. It wa a terrible day. An earthquake cannot be predicted as a hurricane; so you need to be ready almos daily. Have your earthquake bag ready by the door. This means, have in your bag: medicines, toilet paper, water, thick gloves, flash lite, radio,etc. Impossible to have everything , but if you live in a cold area, have a blanket ready you can grab. Have your evacuation roeute, your family gathering plan.
It is worst than hurricanes. I am from the Yucatan Peninsula; and I am used to them. Although they are devastating, like Katrina. It also as earthquakes varies wherever you are. In Yucatan, because of the stony land water zip through; and there are almost no flooding after 1 day or 2. Now , I live at McAllen; and here the ground is clay. Water stays standing for months after a hurricane.
Gracias, Maria from Mayaland .
1 Like   Thanked by Emily Hurley    September 18, 2013 at 4:20PM
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I'm from Greece, Athens, and I have lived through 2 major and many minor earthquakes. Last big one was in 1999. Our first story apartment was going back and forth. I was trying to hold on to the door casings and I couldn't....!!Homes in Greece are built with cement and brick! They don't tumble easily but they do get damaged and if they do fall you would be lucky to be found alive under the rubble.
Never hang heavy objects or mirrors above beds!
0 Likes   Thanked by Emily Hurley    September 18, 2013 at 4:45PM
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JudyG Designs

Important question which needs expert advice.
0 Likes   Thanked by Emily Hurley    September 18, 2013 at 6:33PM
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I was in Sacramento during the big 1989 quake in SF. We certainly felt it all the way up there. I was riding a motorcycle and the road started rolling all over, I thought a tire was falling off so I stopped. The ground was undulating under my feet. It was the weirdest thing ever. Our house up there didn't have any damage at all. My sister's house in Concord had a crack running through the entire length of the house.
We actually had a quake here in S. Dakota a few years back. Of course it wasn't very strong but still weird to have the house start moving somewhere quakes are uncommon.
0 Likes   Thanked by Emily Hurley    September 18, 2013 at 7:54PM
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I love that house in the pic, it is gourgeous, I would be hugging it to protect it from an earthquake if I could haha..

I have experienced several, at our farm which we visit from time to time, it was around 4 am- 5 am, and I felt uneasy and felt like the room was sliding side to side, indeed I saw the chandelier moving side to side, told hubby , he just went back to sleep!! So, did I and I waited it for subside, and it did, I went back to sleep.. hubby received numerous calls asking him if he felt the earthquake and admitted I was right! Our farm house is located on a hill overlooking fields and the hill is all sand but has a strong foundation. However, to ensure that the sandy area didn't settle or sink, he had the surrounding area strengthen with concrete, and the hill cobbled stoned with trees and plants in prepared beds of soil. This all gives it support. We found out that it affect water pipes too!! Something you tend to forget about.

The other time I was at our home in another place, sat on the chair ( days before keep feeling and hearing this creaking weird!! Some shopping bags even fell over, I ignore it though but was uneasy. Next evening, sat watching TV with cup of tea on a tray ( on a table) next to me...I felt this trembling sensation and noise and put it to an aircraft or heavy traffic, until my wardrobe and windows started rattling-it still didn't hit me as not too common to get earthquakes here. Then the noise got louder , the floor was shaking under me, my cup was shaking along the tray and did it hit me, I could hardly walk to the door to get out as just as it got stronger, it stopped. Everyone ran out of their room, we were all silent.. it was a rented house but I was concern for the house we were about to move into to! Everything seems okay though.
2 Likes   Thanked by Emily Hurley    September 19, 2013 at 12:05PM
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I have lived in the SF Bay Area all my life, so I have experience many small and moderate earthquakes, and was about 6 miles from the epicenter of the Loma Prieta earthquake. With the big one, things were shaken out of cupboards and off shelves, and pictures fell off the walls. The chimneys were damaged - the next door neighbor's entire chimney was shaken about 1 1/2 inches away from the house, but didn't fall apart. Since there are virtually no basements here (thanks to 1906 earthquake) and it's almost all wood-frame construction, there wasn't a ton of collapsed houses, but old turn-of-the-century houses had parts of the foundation collapse or twist or heave (most had concrete perimeter, new construction has concrete slab).

In fact, there were many old houses around Los Gatos/Saratoga area where the front porch fell or was heavily damaged because the two support structures couldn't handle the shaking and heaving of the earth. Obviously, the open shelf style in kitchens is a no-no. Things fall off shelves or tip over even in minor earthquakes, so plan ahead and think about how easy it is for things to fall over - do you really want that heavy picture or shelf of baubles over your favorite sitting spot or bed?

After the Loma Prieta, it was very difficult to get a phone call out and all incoming calls to the area were blocked to help with the overload, so plan on not be able to call your family and friends. Also the power was out for days and days - in the Santa Cruz mountains it was weeks. The stores had all their merchandise on the floor and of course only a handful had power, are you prepared to not be able to buy food and supplies? Any home owner should be able to turn off the gas and water in their home - no matter where you live. Don't be dependent on your spouse - what if your teenagers are home alone? They need to be able to do it too.

Loma Prieta also damaged one of the major bridges, trains were stopped while they checked the rails and tunnels for damaged, and a couple of freeways were damaged (not talking about the Cypress Structure), so be prepared to find alternatives to getting home from work or stay in place for a night or two. A friend was a couple miles away from his apartment and it took him several hours to drive home after Loma Prieta.

And of course, when renovating... infrastructure first, cosmetic last - especially if you're fixing up a house that is a few decades old. Making things pretty is fun, but making sure your house's structure, plumbing, roof, etc. can withstand weather, time and disaster is so much more important. So many houses we looked at when buying our first home, had been updated but things like the damaged foundation and chimneys (leading to plumbing issues, sagging walls and roofs) were never addressed. Why spend $10k on new kitchen cabinets when your house is literally falling apart?
2 Likes   Thanked by Emily Hurley    September 19, 2013 at 12:57PM
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I didn't live near the epicenter of the Loma Prieta but because of the shale underground, the waves bounced up heavily into our town. Believe me, we felt it. Luckily, we only lost 1 beer stein.
0 Likes   Thanked by Emily Hurley    September 19, 2013 at 1:43PM
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It really depends on the scale of the earthquakes. Big, damaging earthquakes are actually not especially common to California. Los Angeles, for example has not experienced a major event in almost 20 years (try to say the same thing for Hurricane probe areas like New Orleans or Tornado Alley). I would be far more concerned about a major event in Oregon or Washington than I would in California simply because the Cascadia region is capable of producing some pretty catastrophic (9.0+) earthquakes where the San Andreas really isn't, and the buildings up there are not built to anything near California's standards, so if I had to choose I'd pick the golden state.

The thing to remember is that most buildings ride out quakes pretty well. Even some of the ones that were damaged heavily in Northridge (some where thrown off their foundations into the street), still stood after the quake (albiet not safely). Because most construction in California is wood (which rides out a quake with ease) and not masonry the chances of a structural failure are actually pretty remote. If I were in a very dense neighborhood you'd be better off in the house than outside, especially in a downtown area where windows are designed to blow out and masonry comes off buildings. Take your chances inside the house rather than running out and having a concrete roof tile hit you on the way out.

The other thing is that most homes in California are engineered to fairly stringent tolerances. In California you have to meet both wind load requirements and seismic requirements which necessitates a certain type of construction that has things like shear walls, thicker slab foundations, etc. In Northridge most of the damage occurred with older masonry structures and buildings that weren't well engineered in the first place like the apartment building that collapsed. That never should've happened. There were also a number of modern concrete buildings in Santa Monica (where ground movement exceeded 6 feet in places) that did not fare too well (some of which were astoundingly not condemned). I think the biggest structural risks are going to be in high-rises constructed in the 1950s and not so much in general residences (but I'm also a bit suspicious of some of these adaptive reuses where old factories and empty buildings have been converted into lofts by developers more interested in making a quick buck and not interested in bringing the building up to code -- in some places its not required, so be fair warned). But as a general rule, the building probably isn't going anywhere in an earthquake (even if it feels like it is). It might scare the hell out of you and suspended ceilings may come down, stucco and drywall may crack, but typically the structure should stay sound enough for you to ride out the quake and then evacuate. The majority of the damage in Loma Prieta (as with 1906) came from fire. In the recent Japanese earthquake, again most structures performed well (watch some of the videos on Youtube and you can see just how the buildings ride out the quake and then go right back to being what they were), but the big damage was caused by the tsunami. As long as the buildings are well engineered and maintained its probably not the earthquake itself that will harm you (though you may think otherwise) but the events in the aftermath (gas leaks, fires, electrical, panic, etc).
1 Like   Thanked by Emily Hurley    September 19, 2013 at 1:52PM
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Tornado alley! Funny, people always say "I wouldn't move to California - you have earthquakes!" Ok, so buy a mobile home and move to Kansas?
2 Likes   September 19, 2013 at 2:07PM
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LOL, i agree charleee - my relatives in Wisconsin are like, eek you guys have earthquakes! Yeah but ours are only bad once a century and you guys have blizzards, tornadoes, hurricanes and lightning storms. Everybody acts like it's a crisis when it gets below 45°F or if we get more than 1" of rain in a day. We actually had some thunder for the first time the other day for the first time in ~10 years.

Funniest memory is when a Wisconsin cousin came to visit and we had a little earthquake (just a little land surfin - no biggie) and comes running out into the backyard looking wildly around him. Like, um... you trying to outrun the quake? LOL!
6 Likes   September 19, 2013 at 3:01PM
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I say our rattlesnakes are the worst and then they're really freaked out! (We don't want California more populated anyway). I used to get them in my house until I nailed up a snake guard around the yard.
This post has been nerve wracking but a good reminder. I'm rethinking some of the items I have around the house that aren't very stable (my TV) and didn't think about access to cash. Thanks all for posting.
1 Like   Thanked by Emily Hurley    September 19, 2013 at 3:08PM
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My MIL lives in Mexico City and earthquakes are fairly frequent there. She says she wants to go to bed with a steak tied around her so the rescue dogs can find her!
6 Likes   September 19, 2013 at 3:19PM
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Emily, I'd say #1 and 2 for me of your above description. I've only experienced earthquakes twice, once when visiting my sister who lived in California and once, I think la year or two ago, here in Massachusetts. Honestly, I really don't want to experience any large quake, bad enough I have to deal with the damn snowstorms/blizzards.
0 Likes   Thanked by Emily Hurley    September 19, 2013 at 5:52PM
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I'll say it again. There's an entire generation of people who've never been through a major earthquake in San Francisco or LA. Other than a volcano eruption can one say the same for any other natural disaster? There wasn't a big Bay Area quake between 1906 and 1989. That's a lifetime. I think you are over worried about this. This isn't Haiti.
1 Like   Thanked by Emily Hurley    September 19, 2013 at 9:06PM
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Most scientists would disagree with you, ncreature. The chance of a large earthquake here in the next 20 years is more likely than not. Coincidentally The Earthquake 2013 Business Preparedness Summit is being held Friday, October 11 and the annual ShakeOut, a drill held on the third Thursday of October is coming up! (A sister and a brother are geology nerds from UC Davis)
2 Likes   September 19, 2013 at 9:22PM
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I'm not saying there won't be a large quake anytime soon. Just that I wouldn't move to the east coast out of fear of it.
4 Likes   September 19, 2013 at 10:12PM
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I moved to California in 1968 and they said there would be a major earthquake in the next 30 years, and they've been saying it every year since. How can they miss?
0 Likes   September 20, 2013 at 3:21AM
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Scott Cooper
Just a quick note about earthquakes and Bunk beds. I grew up in a big family. Bunk beds were in all the children's rooms in our so cal. home. I could tell every time there was a minor earthquake above 2.5 on the richer scale. My brothers bunk would fall on me. Most bunk beds at that time, mid 70's, did not require or provide safety braces, I believe it was a a state requirement by 1980. But the wire brace does not always prevent the upper bunk from shifting on wood frame beds. eventually furniture companies added wood slates. Those should be bolted or screwed to the frame, I've seen them shift with little effort. Also, the upper bunk should be bolted to the wall and lower section of the frame. This prevents the frame from collapsing.
4 Likes   September 20, 2013 at 9:20AM
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Emily Hurley
Yikes. Good advice @Scott. I have bunks in my son's room and they have long metal rods connecting each of the beds at the four posts, but I am ALWAYS worried about that.
0 Likes   September 20, 2013 at 9:28AM
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Northridge earthquake 1994. Some of the aftershocks were almost as high as the first. Lived in a apartment building that was condemned the first day. After that I made sure that I had my glasses in my nightstand drawer and my shoes or slippers right by the bed, flashlights close tried to be prepared. Scariest thing I've been through. Took 3 months to find a place to live. Lived with different friends till I found housing.
2 Likes   Thanked by Emily Hurley    September 20, 2013 at 9:58AM
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I lived in Big Bear Ca. In the early 90's. We had a big one there, biggest thing I learned is that you will crave water immediately. Keep some on hand, it is the first thing to go if you can find it. Second, have emergency housing (tent, sleeping bags, flashlight, etc) easily accessible. Our house was tagged because of the chimney and we could not go in for days. Hotels won't be available because they are also damaged. NEVER hang anything over your bed or above the headboard. Had the first quake not gotten us all up, I would have been sleeping when the bigger one came and made the mirror that was 5ft long and very heavy slid right down onto the bed...would have been a nasty sight for my children to have seen.
1 Like   Thanked by Emily Hurley    September 24, 2013 at 6:35AM
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Having been through the Loma Prieta quake in CA. in 1989, and having my Mom living in Los Gatos, there is one singular thing that made the difference there. Was the house bolted to the foundation. Thankfully, Mom's was. For many people in that area, there are historical or "bell ringer" homes, meaning that they were a hundred years old. For that, you get a little cat doorbell. In any case, the extensive breakage of things inside the home was enormous, but the house held. All up and down the street, the pavement was lifted 2-3 feet in places, and the houses that slipped off their foundations looked like litle sad faces with just their eyes showing. It was literally years before all the homes were redone, and some had to be demolished, which was very sad.

Virtually any place can have an earthquake, so bolt to the foundation and strenghten the attic where everything hangs together.

I haven't posted before; hope this is helpful.
4 Likes   Thanked by Emily Hurley    September 24, 2013 at 10:29AM
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A few visual images of the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989:
3 Likes   September 24, 2013 at 11:25AM
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Julie Goodenough
Get estimates from licensed reputable contractors on what it would cost to strengthen your foundation. Could save your life in a major quake. I'm a native San Franciscan who works in the construction field.
1 Like   Thanked by Emily Hurley    September 24, 2013 at 3:54PM
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Hi to all; I'm not sure how to thank someone on this format; I do not use the computer too much, but I am trying to learn how to respond when someone says something to me.

I realized as I was thinking more about the quake , what came to my thought was that because of the phone lines, I could reach my sister in Portland, OR., but could not call my Mom in Los Gatos from Belmont. The one call that reached me was my husband, who did not have and couldn't get enough gas in the car to get home from San Francisco.Now we always fill up at a half a tank down! Because of a gas main leak, Mom had been evacuated, and had I not been able to reach my sister and know that she was safe in San Jose with my niece, I would have been a wreck.

Last, because all my Mom's cabinets had pull-out ball bearing drawers, the quake made all the doors fly open and everything slid forward, hit the end of the drawer and were catapulted onto the floor. It made me ask the question whether or not child-proof mechanisms would have been of use. Also, using floral clay to stick small objects down is something she did with the things that were left.

I also recall how helpful people were. Stores gave water away for free, neighbors whose power had been restored cooked for others. Mom went and got two elderly friends in the Santa Cruz mountains. They were not hurt but very badly shaken. They lived with her for some time, but the house had to be demolished.
2 Likes   Thanked by Emily Hurley    September 26, 2013 at 6:54AM
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We were in the South Napa Quake. Living in empty rooms would have been the only way to prepare for that one. It was very locally powerful, everyone in our area lost china and glass. Cupboards flew open, drawers flew open, cabinets that were bolted to walls jolted away. One of mine just left the bolted back against the wall and waltzed across the room. I am planning to read all these posts and prepare. Our large flashlight is now next to the bed instead of on the shelf that is shown in the third photo here.
2 Likes   September 14, 2014 at 5:05PM
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