Strongest earthquake in decades hits Southern California, measuring 6.4 magnitude

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A 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck Southern California on Thursday, the largest temblor to hit the region in two decades.

The 10:33 a.m. quake was centered in the Searles Valley, a remote area of Kern County about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, and was felt as far away as Long Beach and Las Vegas.

There were no immediate reports of fatalities, though authorities in the city of Ridgecrest were responding to dozens of emergency calls.

The Kern County Fire Department was responding to “nearly 2 dozen incidents ranging from medical assistance to structure fires in and around the city of Ridgecrest,” according to the department’s Twitter account.

There were scattered reports of problems at Ridgecrest Regional Hospital. Reached by phone, Ridgecrest Mayor Peggy Breeden said authorities were in the process of assessing the hospital.

"It's a little crazy here right now,” she said before quickly ending the call.

The quake was the largest in Southern California since the 7.1 Hector Mine quake struck the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base in 1999.

Caltech seismologist Lucy Jones, California’s foremost earthquake expert, told a midday news conference in Pasadena to anticipate more shaking on the Fourth of July.

“We should be expecting lots of aftershocks,” Jones said. She estimated that there was a “greater than 50-50” chance of an earthquake of magnitude 5.5 or more Thursday afternoon.

By 12:30 p.m. more than 65 aftershocks had been recorded, including three that registered above magnitude 4.5.

Mark Leach, an engineer who lives in Ridgecrest, was in his garage about to drive to a Fourth of July barbecue in Los Angeles when the shaking started. It felt like it went on for 30 seconds, he said.

“About halfway through it I dashed out into the road completely freaking out,” he said. “You can see some cracking in the seams of the drywall and stuff was knocked off the shelves — books and CDs and stuff.”

As the aftershocks started, Leach said he could actually hear them before he felt the shaking.

The quake was relatively deep, occurring more than five miles underground.

"I was in my kitchen trying to get some coffee and all the windows started rattling," said Emma Gallegos, a 34-year-old journalist in southwest Bakersfield. "It was just a little bit at first — I thought something was going by, and then I realized all the windows were rattling. It was kind of a long gentle roll and I felt two distinct waves."

Gallegos said that the dried chiles hanging from a hook on her kitchen wall were all shaking. "It was surreal."

The U.S. Geological Survey is dispatching geologists to Kern County look for a surface rupture and gather other data.

Sizable earthquakes began shaking Searles Valley around 10:02 a.m., when a 4.0 quake struck. Seven minutes later, a 2.5 temblor struck. Both were likely foreshocks of the 6.4 earthquake at 10:33 a.m. Jones said it’s possible that the 6.4 event could turn out to be a foreshock of an even larger quake yet to come.

“There is about a 1 in 20 chance that this location will be having an even bigger earthquake in the next few days, and that we have not yet seen the biggest earthquake of the sequence,” she said. “Some aftershocks will probably exceed magnitude 5, which means they’ll probably be damaging.”

California has been in an earthquake drought, Jones said, but Thursday’s quake does not make the “big one” any less likely.

She added, “We should always be preparing for the big one.”

The earthquake was centered roughly 80 miles northeast of a stretch of the 106-year-old Los Angeles Aqueduct spanning the San Andreas fault.

“Aqueduct personnel have been deployed as part of our standard earthquake response protocols to inspect the aqueduct and reservoirs,” said Joe Ramallo, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “In the city, critical facilities are also being checked.”

“There is no information nor reports of damage at this time,” he said.

Other people nearer to the epicenter were shocked by the shaking.

“I was laying down in my bed and I had my feet on the wall and I felt like both of the sides of the house were moving and shaking so I ran, and grabbed my brother and kid and came outside,” said Edith Mata, 22, a student at Bakersfield College. Her son is 3 years old and her brother is 17.

“The neighbors across the street were also outside with their whole family of five people. My kid had no idea what was going on.” Mata said that it felt very “creepy” and that she had never experienced anything like it before.

It was unclear whether the temblor caused damage or injuries. Los Angeles officials said they have gotten no reports of major damage.

In the Los Angeles area, the quake was slow and steady, lasting about 30 seconds.

The earthquake was centered 10 miles northeast of Ridgecrest, a city of about 29,000 known as a small town for skiers and snowboarders headed from Los Angeles to Mammoth.

The earthquake was felt widely throughout the Los Angeles area, said Caltech seismologist Egill Hauksson.

It’s unlikely there was significant damage in a major urban area given that the earthquake was centered in such a remotely populated area.The area that ruptured occurred in an area of faults slightly east of the Sierra Nevada. The Little Lake fault is one of them, and last went through a magnitude 6 earthquake in 1984, Hauksson said.

Local emergency agencies have been flooded with calls, and officials urged that people only use 911 for emergencies.

“We are very much aware of the significant earthquake that just occurred in Southern California. Please DO NOT call 9-1-1 unless there are injuries or other dangerous conditions. Don't call for questions please,” the LAPD said in a statement.

Thursday’s quake was slightly weaker than the 1994 6.6 Northridge quake, which killed dozens and caused billions of dollars in damage. But that Los Angeles quake hit in the center of a populated area, while Thursday’s quake was located in a far less developed area.

“There is about a 1 in 20 chance that this location will be having an even bigger earthquake in the next few days, and that we have not yet seen the biggest earthquake of the sequence,” she said.




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