When the Big One Hits
A father recalls the joy of being prepared after the deadly Sylmar earthquake rocked his family’s world
By Christopher Nyerges 08/08/2013
I begin my book, “Self-Sufficient Home,” with a story about Dude McLean, who 42 years ago lived through the deadly Sylmar earthquake, also known as the San Fernando earthquake. Because he was prepared — primarily due of his experiences camping and in the military — McLean fared much better than the average resident following the devastating magnitude 6.6 temblor, putting the self-reliance of his family to the ultimate test.
The quake, which killed 65 people and injured more than 2,000 others, also destroyed buildings, among them portions of the then-newly built Olive View Hospital in Sylmar and the Veterans Administration Hospital in San Fernando, as well as a number of freeways, causing $505 million in damage, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS).
Fortunately, McLean and his family members were ready to weather this catastrophic event, which occurred moments after 6 a.m. Feb. 9, 1971, and lasted a full 60 seconds, according to the USGS. However, this exceptional level of preparedness on the part of McLean and his family wasn’t achieved overnight. As the Earth moved and houses around him fell into piles of rubble, McLean and his family had long been prepared to survive this and any other disaster.
“The noise of the quake was deafening. I can’t even describe it,” says McLean, who interestingly, spent the following 35 years describing sounds as a music producer. “It was like being next to a train going by and you can’t hear your conversation, but multiply that by 1,000. The Earth was grinding and moving, and it was like a giant shock wave hit the house,” McLean recalls of the moment he felt the Earth moving underneath him. “It was like some giant had wrapped his hands around the house and shook it every which way. It was very much like being hit with a bomb. My first words when the quake began were, ‘They got us,’ thinking we were hit by a Russian bomb.”
Back to the Earth
In 1965, McLean, his wife and their three young children moved into a house in Kagel Canyon, a small unincorporated community of about 200 families located in the hilly northern section of Los Angeles County, on the southwest fringes of Angeles National Forest, just west of San Fernando. He liked the house because a stream flowed behind it year-round. “It was in the LA area, but I always felt distant from the LA craziness,” says McLean.
The former US Marine said he wanted a place where he could be as self-reliant as possible, even though his property didn’t have a lot of land. He began doing French intensive gardening — requiring lots of digging — then switched to square-foot gardening and raised beds. He grew carrots, kale, corn, beans, squash and more in his garden. “We grew 90 percent of our own produce,” recalls McLean. He learned how to garden by doing lots of reading and lots of experimenting. “Most of the work of gardening and producing your own food is in the preparation stages,” explains McLean, who brought in horse and chicken manure and lots of mulch. Though he grew no fruit trees, he was glad that he’d produced an environment that would feed his family.
McLean wanted to do more than simply have food prepared, so he began to build up the family’s supply of water and camping gear. “I already had a pickup truck with a camper on it, and I began to purchase camping gear, such as Coleman stoves, lanterns, sleeping bags, an ice chest, and even a porta-potty. And we always purchased our gear used, if possible,” he says. McLean explains that his family frequently went camping, and so the entire family was well versed on what it took to live well in the field. “We all knew how to camp,” he says.
Since his canyon home was somewhat remote, it would lose electrical power from time to time. McLean purchased kerosene lamps for the home, and eventually stored 35 gallons of the fuel. He continued obtaining lanterns, tents and blankets. His fully equipped camper, customized with dual gas tanks, had a range of about 800 miles.
“We had our own water supply in the canyon, supplied by artesian wells, but it always bothered me that the water supply could be interrupted for various reasons. So I always liked the fact that we had this stream behind the house,” says McLean. Still, he began to store water. He obtained two 40-gallon barrels and eventually acquired 10 large glass water bottles for storage. He also collected rain water when he could.
“We began to experiment with drying our own food, and did so on old window screens. We put the sliced food on the screens, and put another screen on top to keep off the flies. Some of these experiments didn’t work out, but mostly they did, and we stored a lot of what we dried,” explains McLean.
Then, in February 1971, while most of Los Angeles County slept, the earthquake struck in the San Gabriel Mountains, just a few miles from San Fernando.
Piles of rubble
“As the crow flies, we were only about five miles from the epicenter of this quake,” explains McLean. There was crashing in his house as stuff fell everywhere. He ran into the bedroom of his two youngest children, and while the house was still shaking tucked one under each arm and ran out of the house to a big field across the street.
“The house had four doors as exits, but I could only get one open because the others were jammed. So I took the two youngest to the field, set them down, and told them to stay. Then I ran back into the house, naked and barefoot, and got the older daughter out of the house.” McLean also took her to the field across the street with the other children, and then went back.
“My wife was turning in circles in the house,” says McLean, explaining that all the walls were lined with plates and bookshelves and everything was being tossed into the center of the room, falling over and breaking. In the kitchen, every cabinet had emptied onto the floor, which was littered with broken glass.
“I don’t know how I escaped getting my feet cut,” says McLean, “but I just grabbed my wife, and we all went over the field and stood there while everything was still shaking. Other neighbors started coming out and some came to the field. I could see that all the transformers on the telephone poles were down, and some houses up the creek had been thrown off their foundations and into the creek.”
McLean explains that when it became light, neighbors checked on other neighbors, and there were no major injuries or deaths in the canyon. Some neighbors just stayed to themselves and wouldn’t check on others. The line that provided water to the homes in the canyon was broken every six to 20 feet. Telephone, electricity and gas lines were also out. The main access road to the canyon had shifted about two feet, so you needed a truck to get in or out of the area.
About 30 percent of the homes in the canyon were totally destroyed. Some people packed up and left, never to return. About a dozen houses were shaken down to piles of rubble about four-feet high.
‘The right thing’
McLean’s family didn’t want to go back to the house, but it was cold and they went inside to get clothing. Eventually, they all sat in the truck and cooked breakfast on Coleman stoves. Since there was no electricity, radios and televisions remained silent and the family had no idea how bad the situation really was beyond the canyon. They got through that first day by cleaning up the living room, with plans to use it as a bedroom later that night. However, when night came, no one wanted to sleep, so they all piled into the truck and drove out of the canyon to assess the damage.
There was electricity in Hollywood and other places, and they learned about the range of the quake’s damage from scant news reports on the truck’s radio. The media focused on the heavily damaged hospital, Olive View, and the many bridges and overpasses that had collapsed. “I believe there was much more widespread damage,” says McLean, “but we didn’t have the freeway through here then, and we didn’t have the instant media that we have now.”
The family returned home and spent the night there. Since they had family in the high desert, the next day McLean took his wife and children to the homes of relatives, then returned to the house.
The following week, McLean worked on cleaning up the house himself. He notes that it took four days for government emergency crews to reach the canyon, bringing with them water and other supplies. It also took at least three weeks for the regular water supply to be restored, and at least that long for electricity to be turned back on. “The government can be very slow in reacting to emergencies, but we had plenty of supplies in food and water,” McLean says. “I had a porta-potty, and I could bury the contents in the yard when full. But our toilet was actually on a septic system that still worked if I poured water into the bowl.” He had a total of 120 gallons of stored water, some of it in glass containers that did not break.
“I took short baths with just a little water. I cooked on the Coleman stoves with the food we’d stored. Plus, I didn’t just take care of myself. I shared food and water with neighbors. I showed neighbors how to get water from the creek and boil it. It is still amazing to me that some people didn’t know to do this. In general, everyone helped those who needed help. Perhaps the best thing we had going for us was that most of the neighbors knew each other. We had a community center at the park, and there were regular meetings there with teen and adult activities. Knowing your neighbors is probably the best way to prepare for emergencies, besides storing things and learning skills.”
McLean stayed at his house, cleaning things up for when the family returned, which they did the following week. That night, everyone slept together in the living room. Gas lines were out, so they cut their own firewood using hand saws. They walked up the canyon and cut dead oak and sycamore branches and burned them in their living room fireplace. Little by little, utilities were eventually restored and life got back to normal.
“After the quake, I remember thinking, wow, I did the right thing,” says McLean. “Here I was preparing maybe for war, for the Russians to bomb us, or maybe for unemployment, but not for an earthquake like this. And I was very happy to be prepared.
“To this day, my son still vividly recalls that earthquake,” says McLean. “That experience spurred me on to do even more extensive preparations. A disaster can be a job loss, a fire, anything. It’s important to know what to store, where to store things and how to store them.”
McLean explains how he continues studying self-reliance and survival skills, and has built up an extensive research library of more than 600 books. “But all the books in the world are no good if you don’t put the information into practice,” he adds. “I got to the point where I had a whole room in storage, and if I didn’t have to go to the store for two years I could have done that. We could have lived off the grid for two years, and I had backup systems for my backups,” he laughs.
According to McLean, “The most basic thing for people to do is to have at least a few weeks of food and water. Plan at least a gallon of water per person per day. And don’t store everything in one place, since you may not be able to get to your gear. Think through all your daily needs, make a list, and begin to get your supplies for sleeping, shelter, eating, cooking, lighting — everything.”
With a father’s pride, he points out that all three of his children are very self-reliant today, because they grew up that way, knowing how to camp and meet life’s basic needs. “Remember, I had to learn all this little by little, and we experimented,” McLean adds. “Sure, we were also preparing for possible emergencies, but we all had a great time doing it.” n
A version of this story first appeared at dirttime.com.
Christopher Nyerges is the author of books on the outdoors, including “How to Survive Anywhere.” He does a weekly podcast for Preparedness Radio Network, and he blogs at ChristopherNyerges.com. A schedule of his classes at the School of Self-Reliance is available by writing to PO Box 41834, Eagle Rock, Calif., 90041.