5.4 earthquake rocks L.A. area; minor injuries and damage reported
By Joel Rubin and David Pierson
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
July 30, 2008
A strong earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 5.4 shook large parts of Southern California late this morning, shaking a wide swath from Ventura County to San Diego.
The quake shook downtown L.A. buildings and was felt as far east as Palm Springs.
It was centered near Chino Hills, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles, the U.S. Geological Survey said.
“It felt like something had exploded underneath us,” said Vanessa Rojas, 21, a hair salon employee at Blondie’s Clip Shop in nearby Chino. “The ground lifted, then it began to shake. It was a big ripple.”
There were reports of minor damage and a few injuries. A spokesperson for the St. Jude medical groups confirmed that there were minor injuries and minor structural damage at the St. Jude Centers for Rehabilitation and Wellness in Brea, an outpatient medical facility. There was flooding at the Macy’s in Topanga Plaza, and five people suffered minor injuries at a building in the 3600 block of Wilshire Boulevard in the rush to exit.
The magnitude of the quake, which hit at 11:42 a.m., was originally set at 5.8. But Caltech officials downgraded it to 5.4 and said they doubted the temblor caused major structural damage.
Kate Hutton, a staff seismologist at Caltech, said 27 aftershocks were recorded at various places, with 3.6 being the largest and the only one felt.
Today’s temblor “was somewhat similar to the  Whittier Narrows [quake],” Hutton said. “Most everyone in the L.A. Basin felt it. Things will have fallen off shelves. I’d be surprised to see some structural damage. There could be some cases of cracked plaster and maybe broken windows, but not structural damage, which is when a building is compromised.”
She called the quake an “oblique flip on a thrust fault,” which means one fault line slides over another one.
The quake’s depth was about 7 miles, which she said was pretty shallow by global standards. A much deeper one would not be felt so strongly, but overall, it would be felt by a larger area.
“The most interesting thing to us is that this is the first one we’ve had in a populated area for a long time,” Hutton said. “People have forgotten what an earthquake feels like. We should look at this as an earthquake drill for the big one that will come one day.”
She said today’s quake was significantly smaller than the Whittier Narrows quake. That one was on a blind thrust fault, hidden under sediment. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has activated the Office of Emergency Services, and officials urged people throughout Southern California to cut back telephone use because the system was being “maxed out.”
Raja Mitwasi, chief deputy director of the California Department of Transportation office in Los Angeles, said that traffic on the county’s highway system was not disrupted by the earthquake. He said Caltrans has been monitoring traffic flows from its traffic management center.
The agency also is inspecting highway bridges and pavement.
“So far, there is nothing visible. We don’t even see minor damage,” Mitwasi said. “Traffic appears to be moving normally. We don’t see any delay.”
Irvine police closed the Bake Parkway connector to Interstate 5, fearing that the overpass might have been damaged in the earthquake. Pam Gorniak, a Caltrans spokesperson, said engineers have to sent to inspect the connector.
The biggest initial concern was in San Bernardino County, which is particularly susceptible to damage because of its high water table.
But there were no reports of injury to people or of structural damage, said Jodi Miller, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. Phones in the Chino Hills Sheriff’s Station have been working intermittently, but the dispatch center has had no disruptions, she added.
Sheriff’s officials are responding to multiple calls from people concerned because their house alarms have been activated. They also have heard many reports of books and groceries flying off the shelves at supermarkets and at a local Barnes & Noble bookstore.
Miller said the department is also getting inundated with calls from people who were frightened by the shaking.
TV helicopter footage of the Chino Hills area showed people being evacuated from schools and some buildings, but no major damage.
The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department said it has no immediate reports of injuries.
The Stanley Mosk Courthouse on Grand Avenue was evacuated as a precautionary measure. Security officials had said they expected the building to reopen after one hour.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors was in closed session at the time of the earthquake and did not suspend its meeting.
The quake interrupted a meeting of the Los Angeles City Council, causing the 27-story City Hall to sway just as Councilman Dennis Zine was criticizing a plan to increase trash fees.
“Earthquake! Earthquake! We’ve got an earthquake,” said Zine, as members of the audience began to cry out. “It’s still happening.”
Pomona City Hall was closed as workers surveyed the damage, mostly broken glass. On the northern side of the building’s third floor, workers used a shovel to scrape away what little glass remained from a large rectangular window.
Phoenix native Nathan Blaylock was lying in bed watching television this morning in his penthouse apartment in downtown Los Angeles when he felt his first earthquake.
“It felt like someone hit the side of the building. It was rocking,” said Blaylock, a medical equipment salesman who said he has lived in Los Angeles for about seven months. “It scared me a little bit, then I realized what it was.”
Elevators at the Pegasus Apartments, Blaylock’s building, shut down as a result of the earthquake. It was not immediately clear whether anyone was trapped in the elevators when they stopped working.
Orange County also felt shaking, and officials were checking reports of possible minor runway damage at John Wayne Airport.
“It’s the first time in my life I actually got under my desk,” said Anaheim Police Sgt. Ken Seymour, who has lived in Southern California his whole life.
It’s too early to tell if there’s any major damage but all units are checking overpasses, bridges and tall buildings, he said.
On the UC Irvine campus, a community college student attending a special summer program began to cry as her English classroom pitched and rolled for about 30 seconds. She was comforted by a counselor and soon was smiling and chatting again. The class in English critical thinking and literature is part of a program for Santa Ana College students to help them transfer to a four-year university.
Rides at both Disneyland and California Adventure were temporarily taken offline after the tremors. Under the park’s normal safety procedures, a spokesman said that after a “moderate earthquake,” each individual ride is shut down and tested before being brought back online.
The quake was felt forcefully in Long Beach, where a series of sharp and loud jolts hit.
Dozens of office workers evacuated high-rise buildings in downtown Long Beach, but there were no immediate reports of physical damage.
In Alhambra, an apartment building rolled and the foundations shook, but not enough to shake books off shelves.
In 1987, three people were killed and roughly 10,600 homes and businesses were damaged in the magnitude 6.1 Whittier Narrows earthquake and a magnitude 5.5 aftershock, and thousands of people were displaced. Many more, their nerves rattled, slept outside on sidewalks or in parks for days after the earthquake, prompting the Red Cross to erect circus tents for people to sleep in. The quakes caused more than $125 million in damage.
The initial, stronger quake hit before dawn on Oct. 1, and the strong aftershock hit early in the morning on Oct. 4.
Robert Heded, 32, a Time Warner technician who lives in Culver City, was about 30 feet above a telephone pole at La Cienega and Pico boulevards when the quake hit.
“I just sat there and waited, kinda rode it out,” he said, about 1 1/2 hours later at a local 7-11, still dressed in his reflective safety vest and buying an energy drink.
The telephone lines were “swaying a lot more than usual, about four feet from side to side,” he said.
“I wasn’t sure what was happening, if it was an earthquake or if it was me,” Heded said. “After it stopped I looked around to see . . . and the lines were swaying.”
Heded finished up his work, still strapped to the pole in his safety gear. Then he made his way down.