Like today, it was an unseasonably warm day in February when a large earthquake hit the San Fernando Valley. It was magnitude 6.6 earthquake. I was just five years old and didn't recall experiencing one before. But I remember was that it was loud. Very loud. The noise has stuck with me more than the shaking.
My family lived in Granada Hills, California in the area just south of what is now the 118 (Ronald Reagan) Freeway between Woodley and Hayvenhurst Avenues. My parents grabbed me out of bed and my three older brothers and I huddled in the kitchen (which in hindsight, is not a particularly safe place to be) as we listened to radio reports about what had happened.
As it turned out, my family lived in a mandatory evacuation area. There was a reservoir north of where we lived called the Van Norman Reservoir (it has since been replaced) that had some ugly looking cracks along its edge. My parents, who had lived in the house for about 9 years, didn't even know there was a reservoir nearby.
I was told later that the evacuation was ordered by police helicopters flying overhead, but we never heard them. My parents heard the news on the radio. So we were all packed up into the two family cars (which I believe where a Chevy station wagon and an Oldsmobile of some type) and headed for the Red Cross center set up at Granada Hills High.
But the center was full, so somehow we ended up at the home of my uncle's family who lived in North Hollywood. My uncle's family (who lived around the block from us) joined us there also and there was a huge group of kids in the house. My mother in her hurried attempt to grab things on the way out, failed to bring a change of clothes for any of her kids, but she did bring blankets. We spent a lot of time watching TV, looking at LA Department of Water and Power officials and other government types staring at the reservoir and wondering what they were going to do.
I cannot remember how many days it took before we were allowed to back into our homes, but I do know that my family was one of the first to return. My mother and my uncle both were allowed to make a special trip back through the police lines around the area to get more clothes and food.
My mother's description of it is still haunting to me. She came back to a typical San Fernando Valley suburb. But there was no one there. Literally no one. The only signs of life were abandoned dogs wandering around the streets and some birds. She was able to go out into our back yard and if she shouted, she could talk to my uncle who was a block away because there were no other noises.
There have been other earthquakes since then and the 1994 Northridge Quake also did a number on my family home, although I wasn't living there at the time. My father still was and there was a mess to clean up, but by then he was retired and widowed and spent hours on end haggling with insurance companies and getting his house put back in order well before his neighbors.
I was fortunate that the 1971 Sylmar quake for me was just an inconvenience. But people lost their lives and their homes. The hospital where I was born, Holy Cross Hospital in Mission Hills, had a section that had to be condemned and rebuilt, giving me the unusual distinction in my family of being both the youngest and the only one whose place of birth was not still standing. Another hospital, Olive View in Sylmar, was just about a total loss.
Kevin Roderick on his San Fernando Valley blog recounts the earthquake and links you to other stories about it. As for me, I think I'll doublecheck my water supply at home.