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Two Days That Shook Humboldt 

25 years later, a look back on the quakes that changed the course of tsunami awareness

Twenty-five years have passed since that warm spring morning on April 25, 1992, when the Cascadia subduction zone delivered a far-reaching message — a magnitude-7.2 earthquake that shook the ground with a force never before recorded in California.

At 11:06 a.m. the streets appeared to pitch and roll as windows shattered, houses were knocked off foundations and a 15-mile-long section of coastline near Petrolia was thrust several feet in the air, leaving tidepool creatures trapped above the ocean's reach.

The same movement caused a corresponding drop in the Eel River Valley floor.

But Mother Nature was not done yet. The next morning came with two powerful aftershocks — a 6.5 and 6.6 — amid a series of smaller ones. Those who experienced it say it almost seemed like the earth would never stop shaking.

Although the quakes left rattled nerves, more than $60 million in damage and nearly 100 injuries, only a small corner of the Cascadia subduction zone broke loose that day.

Had the rupture continued farther along the 600-mile mega thrust fault that runs from Cape Mendocino to Vancouver Island, the result could have been a magnitude-8 or even a magnitude-9, according to Humboldt State University geology professor Lori Dengler, who was in her McKinleyville home when the first quake struck.

"It was certainly more than a wake-up call ... but no matter how you look at that, we were incredibly lucky," she says. "I think it's our duty to put the good graces of Mother Nature to work and to be prepared when the bigger one comes."

While the potential of the Cascadia subduction zone was only known to a small group of geologists and seismologists before 1992, dire warnings about the fault's capabilities have since garnered coverage in major publications, including the New York Times and The Atlantic.

One of the main changes that came about after the Cape Mendocino quake was a general awakening to the near-shore tsunami danger lurking off the West Coast. A small one hit soon after the shaking stopped in 1992, washing away the established belief that the threat would come from far away with hours of warning time.

That realization laid the groundwork for the creation of the National Tsunami Mitigation Hazard Program and the modern mapping, hazard modeling, warning and education systems now in place.

"Mother Nature was actually being very kind to us," Dengler says. "We got an earthquake that did some damage but didn't kill anybody. It raised awareness and we are so much better prepared now than in '92."

The powerful temblors not only transformed the world's understanding of what the clash of tectonic plates off our coast is capable of unleashing but also left an indelible mark on our landscape and those who rode out the seismic waves.

Here are some of their stories.

Wedding Day Jitters
I was standing outside waiting for the bride and groom to arrive for their beautiful outdoor wedding ceremony, when the Earth began to shake. With no doorway or table to hide under, I stood there trying to keep my balance. As I looked up, the bride came running and screaming out of the old Victorian house she was getting ready in — in her bra and petticoat! Not a memory I will ever forget, even though I was only 10 at the time.

— Sarah Weltsch

Change of Plans
The 1989 Loma Prieta quake still fresh in our minds, I still lived in Martinez (Contra Costa County), while my daughter was then a student at HSU, living off-campus in a second story apartment on Erie Street in Eureka. I had driven up on Friday for what was supposed to be a fun women's weekend of R&R. We were just getting ready to go out the door for the day when the first (7.2) quake hit. Being third and fourth generation California natives, it took us only a Nano-second to figure out what was happening. And we did exactly what you are not supposed to do: flew outside and down the stairs, and I mean flew — neither of us even remember doing it. We'd been speaking face-to-face/eye-to-eye when it hit, and the next thing we knew we were in the parking lot.

I remember being confused by what seemed to be the surprisingly long time it took for any information to come over the radio, as this was obviously not just another average run-of-the-mill California temblor to which we're all accustomed.

But here was our takeaway: Not only did that weekend's experience cure both of us of ever again sleeping naked, but we both also slept in our eyeglasses for about two years!

— Catherine Barnes

'I Could See the Ground Rolling'
Eleven a.m. on Saturday, April 25, I was alone and driving to Eureka. Just before the Slough Bridge it felt like I was getting a flat tire. I pulled to the right and soon learned my tires were fine, it was the ground that had a problem. My little Honda Accord hatchback started to violently rock back and forth so badly that I seriously thought it was going to tip over. I could see the ground rolling like the ocean waves, a truly surreal phenomenon, and it felt like it would never stop! Eventually, the shaking calmed a bit, so I quickly, but cautiously, drove over the bridge. It was so bad that I fully expected it all (the bridge, my car, me) to crash into the water. I pulled into the Montgomery Ward's parking lot where others had also stopped and gotten out of their cars. I looked over at an older woman and said, "That was a big one, wasn't it!?!" She laughed and said, "Yeah, honey, I'd say it was!"

At this point, the light poles were still swaying back and forth. The windows were rattling so hard that I could see the glass moving in waves and feared they'd all snap and shatter (they didn't). I had no way of contacting anyone, cell phones existed only in the movies and were a couple of decades away from becoming the norm, so I had to drive back to McKinleyville with no idea of how much danger I might be in. There was no way to know how big the quake was, no way to talk to friends or family, and no way to know how the buildings and people in my life fared through what I knew was the worst earthquake in my lifetime. As I drove, I kept looking for any sign of a tsunami on the bay and, at each building I passed, checking for rubble. It was probably the most scared I've ever been in my life. I didn't like earthquakes before but this (and the two that followed later that night) gave me a very (un)healthy phobia that I have to this day. Ugh! It was five weeks before my wedding and I remember being hypervigilant as I kneeled at the altar in St. Bernard's, looking at the walls and ceiling, absolutely terrified that we'd have another one, and praying to God we wouldn't.

— Cathy Tobin

‘Like Elephants Dancing on the Roof’
I was 8 years old, in the big tan Presbyterian Church on 11th in Arcata, mom was at a Scottish dance group that practiced in the main room there. I remember hearing rumbling and creaking — like elephants dancing around on the roof when the earthquake started. My brother and I had been playing in the Sunday school room and we ducked under the table there, until mom called us out. We ran out and noticed the big chandeliers swaying overhead, and then went outside to join all of the Scottish dancers in the parking lot behind the church. There we experienced some strong aftershocks that were really disorienting. Really memorable quake!

— Allison Curtis

'I'll Never Forget It'
I was riding my bike home from Marshall Elementary and car alarms started going off and it felt like I was riding on waves. I fell off my bike and flagged a stranger to drive me home because I was too scared to ride my bike home. Those were the good 'ole days when you could get in a stranger's car. I was only 10 then, too! I'll never forget it.

— Nick Jones

'I Have Always Been so Grateful'
On the evening of Friday, April 24, 1992, I had just given birth to my beautiful baby girl. My second child in less than a year.

On Saturday the 25th, I was on the operating table at General Hospital preparing to have a pregnancy-related procedure. When the quake struck, the anesthesia was just starting to take effect, but I remember seeing the big overhead light swing back and forth. The anesthesiologist flung himself over me to block any possible falling debris (I don't remember any falling) and the doctor was in the doorway, holding on tight. Needless to say my procedure was postponed.

Meanwhile, my almost 16-hour-old newborn was at the nurses' station. She had been in my room before I went into surgery and hadn't made it back to the nursery yet. The nurse working next to my baby picked her up out of the bassinet and put her under the nurses' counter with her. They were both fine. I have always been so grateful to that nurse.

We (my daughter and I) were still in the hospital when the aftershocks came. We were fine. But I would find out later that my 10 ½-month-old son was at home with his dad and traumatized. His dad had panicked, picked him up out of his crib and hunkered down under the kitchen table with him. Through the kitchen window my son watched a transformer from the nearby power pole explode. Needless to say, he was terrified.

It took a long time for my son to be able to sleep through the night again and to be away from me for any length of time. We are all fine now. And I want to, belatedly, thank the wonderful nurses and staff at General Hospital for taking such good care of me and my baby girl that weekend in 1992.

— Heidi Erickson

Hitting the Wall
I remember jumping out of my bed and running for the door but hitting the wall because the door moved (LOL).

— Nikki Mahouski

Giving the Table a Turn
I was six years old. I remember when the first one struck I ran to the doorway, like most of my family, because it's what the earthquake drills taught us. My mom had a collection of different colored antique bottles on the window sills in the living room and I remember seeing them topple off. I remember in a successive one that I decided to duck under the kitchen table instead because the drills were like "in a doorway or under a table!" (Back then at least) and I felt like I should give the table a turn since I'd already used the doorway. That's how my 6-year-old self handled it; I don't think I was terribly concerned.

— Mariah Bowline

'We Could Not Believe the Damage'
On the morning of April 25, 1992, I drove from Fortuna to Ferndale to visit my friend Jerry Lesandro, who was the curator of the Ferndale Museum at that time. I was surprised to see so many people in town as I did not realize there was a parade that day. I went into the museum and sat down to talk to Jerry while he was getting ready for a most likely busy day. I remember two women volunteers standing near him as we talked. Just after 11 a.m. Jerry and I looked at each other and smiled saying, "Oh, I feel a little tremor."

Just then the building started shaking like crazy. I stood up and made my way to the doorway to hold on. I could not believe how difficult it was to walk. Jerry and the two women fell down as tiles and light fixtures fell from the ceiling. I thought to myself, "This is it!" The sound of falling items and of the building creaking was so loud! It seemed like it was never going to stop. After the shaking came to a halt, Jerry rounded everyone together and asked us all to leave. He locked the museum up and we ran outside. I was shocked to see a house off of its foundation across the street. I followed Jerry as we ran through Main Street. It was chaos.

I saw my friend Kathy holding her head as blood ran down her face. She was unfortunately in front of a store window when it broke and fell on her. I remember seeing Stan Dixon doing his best to calm everyone down and asking home owners if they had any damage. I went with Jerry to his and Larry Martin's Victorian home on Berding Street to assess any damage. When Jerry opened the door he started cussing a blue streak. The hall was littered with broken antique items, pictures were tilting nearly off the walls and furniture had been knocked over. A heavy dresser upstairs had traveled across the room and had then tipped over.

I helped Jerry straighten up a few items and then decided to head home to check on my house, my cat and on my parents. Traffic was slow and bumper to bumper. I pulled over at Tom and Maura Eastman's home, a cute red Mansard near Ferndale High School. It had fallen straight down about 3 to 5 feet off of its foundation. It was so weird to see the front steps leading to an area above the door! Maura was out front so I asked if she was OK. She cried and I hugged her. She was lucky to not have been injured.

I left and remember being on the bridge at Fernbridge having to stop due to a backup of vehicles. I felt an aftershock and heard a young man yelling from his truck for traffic to speed up so that he could get off the bridge. I had to admit, that was a scary place to be at that time. My parents were fine and their home had no damage. I drove to my rental and was surprised to see that not much had fallen.

Late in the afternoon, my partner Chris had come home from work and we decided to go to Ferndale to see if we could help Jerry and Larry. We drove to Rio Dell and took the back road into Ferndale from Blue Slide Road as we heard that no one was to enter Ferndale via Fernbridge. An officer stopped us and asked if we lived in Ferndale and we lied and said that we lived on Berding Street. (We wanted to help our friends).

The town was a mess. We could not believe the damage that we saw. Several hours later while back home, we were awakened by the first big aftershock (which I say was another earthquake due to its magnitude) in the middle of the night. This time, items were falling off shelves and the walls. My cat was terrified. I felt helpless listening to things breaking. Again, I thought the shaking would never stop. After the second aftershock I gave up trying to pick things up and Chris and I spent the rest of the night on our deck, too upset to stay in the house. We watched the sunrise and hoped that the worst was over. I cannot believe that it has been 25 years!

— Lyn Iversen

1992 Earthquake Story
I moved to Ferndale in 1989 after purchasing an older historic home. Over the next three years I had heard and read about how seismically active the area was and had become accustomed to what I called “bumps in the night” when the house would kind of shudder and the suspended lights would sway slightly back and forth.

On the morning of April 25, 1992, I took my son downtown to participate in a parade as part of the first (and last) Wild West Days. My son was on a small pony which, like many of the other horses in the parade, seemed somewhat “spooked” and I had to hold the reins tight in my hands to keep the pony in line. As the parade came to an end I hurried back to my house to pick up my cat that had an 11 a.m. appointment at the Ferndale Veterinary on the outskirts of town. I loaded my son and the cat in the car and headed down Main Street a little late for my appointment. Just past the intersection with Main and Herbert Street, my car suddenly started lurching from one side to the other. At first I thought I had a flat tire. As the lurching continued I thought maybe I had two flat tires as the movement was very strong. About that time I noticed the power lines and trees swinging violently, which was strange as there was little to no wind. As the seconds passed I finally realized this was an “EARTHQUAKE!” No sooner had I realized what was going on than it all stopped.

Several cars continued down Main Street so I decided to continue on to my vet appointment. After parking the car I grabbed my cat and walked into the front office where I encountered a real mess as a fish aquarium had crashed to the floor resulting in broken glass, water and flopping fish everywhere. I looked at the startled staff and quickly announced, “I would come back at a later time.”

As I returned to my car and started driving back down Main Street toward my house I was shocked by the view of several houses which had been shaken from their foundations. One house which had previously been elevated with stairs to the front door had dropped to the point where the stairs now led to the second story. As I turned off Main Street I continued to encounter houses where the front porch or side buildings had separated from the main house. Finally, I turned onto my street where my house came into view. As my house has horizontal siding the first view revealed that everything was still horizontal. I also have a front porch with concrete stairs to the front door so I was relieved that the porch was still connected to my house. I did not see any obvious exterior damage. I removed the cat and my son from the car and walked into my house where I encountered another mess.

The TV had nosed-dived onto the floor. Potted plants had tipped over spreading dirt everywhere. In the kitchen, plates, cups and glasses were strewn across the floor. As most of my kitchenware was plastic there was not a lot of broken anything. Pictures hanging on the walls were askew but remained hanging so no damage there. A quick look at the walls and ceilings revealed some small cracks in the sheet rock over doorways but no other damage was apparent. The refrigerator and electric range remained in their original location and the water heater, enclosed in a small side-space, appeared stable. The most damage to the interior was in my laundry room where several cans of paint stored on shelves had flown across the room spilling paint across the floor and the washer and dryer. I did my best to clean up this mess but much of the paint stains remained for further clean-up at a late time.

My son and I spent most of the rest of the day cleaning up the spilled dirt, picking up the plates and things that had left the cupboards during the violence and hanging out in the yard feeling a bit more safe outside than inside. By late afternoon I had heard about the collapse of the Valley Grocery, which was the only unreinforced masonry building on Main Street, but only one person was injured and there were no fatalities that anyone was aware of. By the end of the day, we settled into our evening routine. Being without power we had to resort to a Coleman lantern and gas stove to cook dinner. After reading both my son and myself to sleep we settled in for the night.

Suddenly around 1:30 a.m. in the early morning of the 26th, our house started to shake violently as if being grabbed and shaking by a giant. Once again I could hear the dishes crashing to the floor, and the TV doing its nose-dive. The plants and cans of paint remained on the floor so no more damage there. Amazingly, my son did not even wake up. I grabbed a flashlight I had kept next to my bed and quickly looked through the house to see if there was any damage that would suggest the house was in danger of collapsing or otherwise be hazardous. Assuring myself that it was safer to stay indoors and not finding any reason to leave the house I climbed back in bed.

I must have counted thousands of sheep before finally falling back to sleep. Then the giant returned around 4:30 a.m. and once again started shaking the house. By then, I was convinced that California had split off from the North American continent and was now an island. After the second morning quake I was unable to get back to sleep. I fired up the Coleman stove and made some coffee. I was sitting outside on my front porch drinking my coffee and eating a banana when the volunteer fire department drove by giving me some assurance and sense of security that someone was responding to all the wreckage and frayed nerves. The next day I checked with friends and neighbors to see if they suffered any damage to their homes. Some had minor damage while others had homes that survived the first quake but leaped off their foundations during the second or third quake.

Having suffered limited damage, I concluded that having concrete front steps, a remodel that included new posts, bracketed into concrete piers that themselves were placed in concrete and were cross-braced, plus a slab for an extension of what we called the “sun room” as well as back wooden stairs also on piers in concrete meant that whatever direction the house tried to move during the ground shaking it ran into concrete. I also realized that if you are living in an area subject to strong earthquakes, occupying a house made of wood is advisable as a wood structure can “rock and roll’ with the shaking and under most circumstances will not collapse. Not wanting to rest on my laurels, I spent the next year installing new concrete piers in concrete and bolting the piers to posts that are then crossed braced to each other. It took me 12 months to install 19 new posts and piers. It has been awhile since a major earthquake. There have been a few that we definitely felt here in Ferndale and resulted in damage in Eureka and elsewhere, but nothing of the magnitude we felt on those fateful days in April 1992. I have my fingers crossed that if (when) we have another large quake the improvements to the house foundations will put us in much better shape to survive the next “Big One!”

— Michael Sweeney

Back to the Future: Remembering the Cape Mendocino Earthquakes
The Redwood Coast Tsunami Work Group and the city of Eureka are hosting a free program on Saturday, April 29, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Cape Mendocino earthquakes. The doors of the Wharfinger Building open at 6 p.m. with the program beginning at 7 p.m.

The event will include speakers and a slideshow as well as an opportunity to share personal experiences. For more information, visit earthquake.cascadiageo.org.

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Kimberly Wear

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Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor of the North Coast Journal.

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