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Ridgecrest earthquake mystery: Why so little destruction from huge temblors?

Rong-Gong Lin II, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- After major temblors on July 4 and 5, structural engineers descended on Ridgecrest expecting to study destruction from the largest earthquake to hit Southern California in nearly 20 years.

They found relatively little.

Yes, mobile homes were torn off foundations, chimneys fell, gas lines leaked and some homes caught fire. But overall, most buildings did fine -- and many businesses were up and running within a day or two of the biggest shock, a magnitude 7.1.

"Ridgecrest, I'm just amazed," California Earthquake Authority structural engineer Janiele Maffei said of the light damage.

But the outcome in Ridgecrest shouldn't provide solace to California's biggest cities.

The Mojave Desert town remained largely unscathed because its building stock was relatively new and remarkably resilient. Many homes are one or two stories, built in the 1980s. It lacks the kind of structures that experts say are most vulnerable in a big quake -- unreinforced masonry, brittle concrete, so-called "soft story" apartments and single-family homes not bolted to their foundations.

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As a result, Ridgecrest suffered far less damage than cities hit by less powerful quakes in recent years, including Napa and Paso Robles, where older buildings in the downtown areas crumbled amid the shaking.

Experts were quick to point out that last week's quakes would have proved far more devastating had they been located near bigger cities filled with more susceptible buildings.

"You take a 7.1 and put it into the Hollywood fault or Newport-Inglewood fault in Long Beach -- we're going to see substantially different levels of damage," said Ken O'Dell, president of the Structural Engineers Association of Southern California. "Ridgecrest did a very good job surviving this particular 7.1."

Keith Porter, a nationally renowned earthquake engineer and research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, said Ridgecrest's result should not be seen as a "victory lap."


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