How we did everything wrong
the day of the Sylmar Earthquake

By Mimi Teller Rosicky, Red Cross volunteer 

As Feb. 9, 1971, drew near, my seven-year-old mind buzzed with excitement for the day’s events: the much-anticipated ocean splashdown of the Apollo 14, a total eclipse of the moon and my daddy’s birthday.  

While those events provided plenty of thrills for one day, Mother Nature added one more for good measure: a 6.6 magnitude earthquake.  

The San Fernando fault zone in the San Gabriel Mountains ruptured just as my 6 a.m. wake-up alarm sounded. 

The San Fernando Earthquake, also known as the Sylmar Quakewas the first major earthquake to hit Los Angeles in 80 years. The jolt lasted for 12 seconds, but the earth and my bed continued to bounce for a full minute.  

My mom rushed from her room to mine, where she stood in the doorframecalling me to join her for safety. Down the hall, my dad and sister Gigi did the same in her bedroom doorway. When the shaking finally stopped, our parents rushed us out the front door, barefoot in nightgowns.  

In retrospect, my well-meaning parents did everything wrong. Standing in doorways and running outdoors shoeless could have exposed us to flying and falling debris, both in the house and outside. We were lucky no harm came to us 

Damage to our North Hollywood home and neighborhood was minimal compared to the massive destruction around Los Angeles. On our street, pools, sidewalks and driveways sprouted sizable cracks. clay bust of my sister fell off the wall and shatteredwhich led to the family joke “when the earthquake hit, Gigi just went to pieces…”  

Despite the limited damage to our house, my small world remained deeply unsettled. The ensuing week felt scary and offkilter. More than 200 aftershocks measuring three or higher on the Richter scale continued into March. With every tremor, the earth growled, windows rattled and things flew off the shelves. I remember wondering if the Apollo astronauts regretted returning to an unstable Earth.  

My sister and I attended the Highland Hall Waldorf School in Northridge, located high on a hill. Many of our friends and classmates lived in nearby Granada and Mission Hills, in the flood path of the Van Norman Dam, which had been damaged by the earthquakeMore than 80,000 residents had to evacuate because of fears that the dam would fail, my sister’s and my friends among them.   

Given its high perch, our school opened its doors as an informal evacuation location for studentand their families. As someone prone to FOMO (fear of missing out), I remember feeling envious of my friends as they gathered at school for what seemed like a fun, impromptu campout. Only later did I learn the gravity of the situation. Families rushed out of their homes to safety, leaving everything behind. They had the shirts on their backs and not much else. Food was limited and water was scarce. 

This month marks seven years since I became a Red Cross volunteer and 50 years since I felt my first earthquake.  

In the moment, all my seven-year-old brain could think to do during the Sylmar Quake was to hold my favorite stuffed toy close. It wasn’t until my Red Cross training that I learned the lifesaving skills to respond to an earthquake. 

When the shaking starts: Drop, cover and hold on. Get under a table or other sturdy piece of furniture if possible. DO NOT shelter in doorways. DO NOT run outside barefoot. Above all else, keep calm and cover your head and neck until the shaking stops. 

Earthquakes are part of life in Southern California, and it’s only a matter of time until the next one cracks pavementrattles windows and wakes families from their sleep 

But this time, I’ll be ready. 

Learn more about what to do during an earthquake at PrepareSoCal.org. 

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