Calif. town on fault line warned of major quake

October 21, 1992|By McClatchy News Service

PARKFIELD, Calif. -- Lilly Massey was standing at ground zero behind the bar of the Parkfield Cafe and scoffing at the notion of the coming earthquake.

"I hope it does happen," the 31-year-old Parkfield native said yesterday cheerily. "For their sake. They've been here almost 10 years."

"They" are the band of scientists who have been ensconced in this tiny ranching community in Monterey County for years, studying its shifting geology.

The studies and a 4.7-magnitude temblor that struck Parkfield Monday night prompted state officials to issue their first ever Level A earthquake warning, its highest type of alert.

The state Office of Emergency Services warned residents of seven counties within a 30-mile radius that a strong earthquake -- magnitude 6.0 -- could hit the town before midnight tomorrow.

Parkfield straddles the San Andreas fault, the great divide that marks the northerly passage of one section of the Earth's crust, the Pacific Plate, along the edge of another, the North American.

The Parkfield segment of the fault is among the most interesting to scientists because it is most congenial to study.

"The earthquakes there are almost always of the same magnitude, almost always centered in the same place, and almost always occur every 22 years," said Pat Jorgenson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, which operates the Parkfield experiments.

While officials issued a 72-hour alert, it was the first 17 minutes after the quake late Monday night that had scientists holding their breath. After the last strong quakes in June 1966 and May 1934, a curious pattern emerged.

"For both, the main shock was preceded by a 5.5 shock at about almost exactly 17 minutes prior to the main shock, so last night when

we got the 4.7 we all watched the clocks very closely for the next several minutes," said Ms. Jorgenson.

The ground around Parkfield is wired like no other place in the world. More than 100 instruments, including some 1,500 feet underground, are set to measure such things as strains and movements, gas emissions, changes in water level and electrical phenomena.

"We hope we can actually trap an earthquake and record these things rather than just hearing rumors about them," said Evelyn Roeloff, former chief of the USGS Parkfield project.

State Emergency Services spokesman Tom Mullins said the agency deployed a number of resources and notified a wide range of agencies, emergency medical centers, operators of hazardous materials pipelines and utilities.

"We have to treat it as if the earthquake is going to happen," he said, although officials set the likelihood of a strong quake at 37 percent. "It's a difficult task, because we don't want people to over-react."

If it were a typical Parkfield quake, no injuries or property damage would be expected. No deaths have been reported since the first recorded Parkfield quake in 1857, authorities said, although after one tremor years ago, a shepherd was found mysteriously dead in a field.

Residents in the town of 34, where the largest buildings appear to be hay barns, are hardly running for cover.

"Not really," said 69-year-old Marge Lemieux, when asked whether she was concerned.

"Living here is not living in the city where there are skyscrapers to worry about. I live in a dual-wide mobile home where the only thing you worry about is it slipping off the concrete blocks or the propane tanks breaking."

Besides, this area is accustomed to the earth moving and bills itself as the "Earthquake Capital of the World."

"Be here when it happens" is the town slogan, and T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase are for sale at the local cafe.

On the walls of the rustic eatery are faded newspaper clips about past quakes and the constant studies of the area.

Parkfield is the only place where the U.S. Geological Survey has issued a specific earthquake prediction.

That came in 1985, when the Geological Survey said a 6.0-magnitude earthquake would strike along the San Andreas fault there by 1993.

That prediction has brought the town much notoriety, but nothing like the OES warning issued Monday night.

By yesterday, the one winding road into town was clogged with TV satellite trucks, news cars and mobile OES communications center.

News helicopters fluttered overhead while area locals rolled their eyes in amusement at the hubbub.

"It's not like the Earth is going to open up and swallow us," said Betty Pierce, who works in the Chamber of Commerce in nearby Avenal.

Ms. Massey said all the attention, which includes making the national network news, has been gratifying.

"It's pretty exciting for a little town that nothing ever happens in," she said.

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