At 6 o’clock in the morning on February 9, 1971, the reservoir keeper of the Lower Van Norman Dam in Southern California tried to get out of bed.
He couldn’t. A magnitude-6.6 earthquake was shaking his home nestled at the bottom of the dam. After checking on his wife and child, he drove to the top of the dam to examine the damage. “It was hard to believe what I saw,” he said.
The Lower Van Norman Dam, which sat above the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County, had nearly collapsed in the wake of the quake. “As wind-whipped waves chewed at the damaged lip of the 1,100-foot Van Norman Dam, police spread through a nine-square-mile area between the reservoir and the Ventura Freeway, warning residents to evacuate,” The Los Angeles Times reported on February 10, 1971. Approximately 80,000 people did evacuate as officials lowered the water levels in the dam.
The 1971 San Fernando, or Sylmar, earthquake was the worst to hit an urban area of California since the 1933 magnitude-6.4 Long Beach quake. It led to 64 deaths and more than $500 million in damage. It prompted Governor Ronald Reagan to declare Los Angeles County a disaster area and President Richard Nixon to send Vice President Spiro Agnew to inspect the area.
After the San Fernando earthquake, the State of California enacted the Alquist Priolo Act to limit construction along faults that likely caused earthquakes able to rupture the ground surface in the last 11,000 years.
On the federal level, Congress renewed its interest in earthquake safety, held hearings and introduced new bills to establish a national earthquake research program. Congress eventually passed the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977, which led to the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, or NEHRP, and was pivotal in helping establish what is now the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program.
Over the years, NEHRP agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey, made research and policy recommendations that in part contributed to the City of Los Angeles enacting an ordinance in 2015 to retrofit weaker first-story wood-frame buildings and non-ductile, or brittle, concrete buildings, which are both more vulnerable to collapse during strong shaking. In 2013, San Francisco enacted the Mandatory Soft Story Retrofit Program, which was based in part on work sponsored by NEHRP and on the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
“NEHRP was founded on the belief that while earthquakes are inevitable, there is much that we can do as a nation to improve public safety, reduce losses and impacts and increase our resilience to earthquakes and related hazards,“ Gavin Hayes, the USGS senior science advisor for Earthquake and Geologic Hazards, said.
An unforgettable earthquake
An earthquake large enough to spur legislative action and help form new federal programs garnered much media attention.
“A Major Disaster,” the New York Times printed on Feb 10, 1971. “Quake Cost in Death, Damages Staggering,” the Valley News and Valley Green Sheet declared on Feb 11.
The latter newspaper printed an article that captured the quake’s desolation in a paragraph. “The cities of San Fernando and Sylmar were left in shambles. Some destruction was reported throughout the Newhall and Saugus areas, 10 miles west of the quake’s epicenter. And the destruction spread, almost like the ring on a pond after the rock’s initial splash.”
The earthquake was the first disaster in the United States to happen after the Disaster Relief Act of 1970, which directed federal agencies to provide assistance to state and local governments. At the time of the earthquake, FEMA did not exist.
The epicenter of the quake was about 8.7 miles (14 km) north of San Fernando in a sparsely populated area of the San Gabriel Mountains. It was 5.6 miles (9 km) deep and generally felt over approximately 80,000 square miles (208,000 square km) of California, Nevada and Arizona.
More than 200 aftershocks with a magnitude of 3 or more occurred over the next month. The upper San Fernando Valley, including the northern section of the City of Los Angeles, sustained the most severe damage to buildings and utilities.
There were 64 causalities directly related to the earthquake, with 49 people killed at the San Fernando Veterans Administration Hospital. Two of its buildings were completely destroyed by the quake. Others died at Olive View Hospital, under collapsed freeway overpasses and at other locations. At Olive View, four 5-story wings pulled away from the main building and three of them toppled.