Take A Ride on the Big Shaker in Los Altos

Scientists say the Hayward Fault is due for another major earthquake.  (Teodros Hailye)

The Los Altos History Museum has been marking the 30th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake with an exhibition called Our Community Prepares: Acts of Nature, Then and Now.

It’s set to close on January 19, 2020. But today only, you can take a ride on the Big Shaker, the world’s biggest mobile earthquake simulator.

"It’s basically a semi truck kitted out like your living room," said Ann Hepenstal is community emergency preparedness coordinator for Los Altos. The Big Shaker can give you the experience of living through a quake up to a magnitude of 8.0.

"You know you live in earthquake country already, but you can really feel what it’s like," explained Hepenstal.

Inside the truck, anything not secured goes flying when the shaking starts. It's a visceral reminder that you need to go home and make sure there's nothing heavy, like a framed painting or bookshelf, that could fall on your bed, should a quake hit while you're sleeping.

Hepenstal has another suggestion: place a pair of shoes under your bed, next to that flashlight you keep there for when you need to respond to things that go bump in the dark. "The biggest injury from nighttime earthquakes is cut feet."

The Los Altos History Museum wants to inspire you to plan ahead, to take care of yourself and those you love while waiting for outside help. The exhibit features sample emergency kits — past as well as present — and local stories of those who survived disasters and lived to tell the tale.

A house in Redwood Grove in the Santa Cruz mountains that was pushed laterally off its cement foundation.
A house in Redwood Grove in the Santa Cruz mountains that was pushed laterally off its cement foundation. (J.K. Nakata/USGS)

Loma Prieta, one of the biggest quakes in living memory here in Northern California, was only 6.9. If you weren’t there on October 17th, 1989, it’s hard to imagine how devastating it was.

Named after the mountain peak near its epicenter, Loma Prieta killed 63 people, injured nearly 3,800 more and caused an estimated $6 billion in property damage.

What we do remember, if we remember it, often comes from photographs and TV footage of the most dramatic damage: cars dangling from a broken section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, desperate rescue crews combing through wreckage of the Cypress Freeway in West Oakland, crumpled apartment buildings sagging onto the streets of the Marina district in San Francisco and giant piles of rubble on the streets of downtown Santa Cruz.

This exhibit aims to bring that sobering sense of possibility home with displays that highlight the history of emergency preparedness and disasters in Los Altos.
This exhibit aims to bring that sobering sense of possibility home with displays that highlight the history of emergency preparedness and disasters in Los Altos. (Courtesy of the Los Altos History Museum)

Great writers like Joan Didion and Mike Davis have written about the continuous presence of natural disasters in the consciousness of Californians. After all, not a year passes without something major in the headlines, happening to or near someone we know.

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Yet a curious disassociation takes place after the smoke clears from the air. Hepenstal said most people fail to imagine an earthquake, wildfire or mudslide could hit their particular neighborhood, until it does.

Even if the damage from Loma Prieta in Los Altos was as minor as shelves disgorging their contents onto the floor, those photos still makes an impact.

"As a newcomer [from the Midwest], I could say, 'Wow, I was in that store last Saturday, and that's what it looked like after the [Loma Prieta] quake.' It brings it to a very personal level," said Hepenstal.

Various child-focused displays help engage and prepare the smallest Californians, too, to think about what they can do ahead of whatever "Big One" hits next. Disaster preparedness is or should be part of the California lifestyle.

Ready to get ready already? Here's a simple kit list from Cal Fire.

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