The stalled-out cars, my dead phone, no lights, and a crashing plane...
In This Article
As the fake yellow boat bobs on its underwater track, you’re surprised by the rumbling that you feel just as you take a seat next to your daughter and son-in-law. Must be the ride,you think, as you can barely contain your excitement of having mechanical dinosaurs pop out at you. But as the other passengers sit down in the rows behind you, you have a sense that something is wrong with this Jurassic Park ride. Very wrong. The mild trembling increases to bone-rattling vibrations. Soon the typical screams of delight and surprise you’ve been hearing all day at Universal Studios change to shrieks of genuine fear.
As the first cracks appear in the nearby concrete, your mind finally assembles the pieces — this is an earthquake! The shaking magnifies, almost throwing you from the boat. The roof over the waiting area begins to come apart, raining down faux logs and thatches upon the amusement park-goers. Then the ground starts to open up…
In this edition of “What If?” we wonder what would happen if the “Big One” finally hits a city like Los Angeles and your family is caught in a massive earthquake. If the San Andreas fault line finally produces a series of devastating tremors, it’ll affect millions of Southern California residents in different ways across dozens, if not hundreds of miles, so no one survival strategy would work best for everyone. So, in an OFFGRID first, we asked a trio of writers to each take on a different scenario affected by the same natural disaster.
First is Patrick McCarthy — a freelance journalist, lifelong outdoor enthusiast, and frequent OFFGRID contributor — who has been tasked to assume the persona of a financial hot shot working in downtown Los Angeles when the quake hits. Next up is Erik Lund — a federal law enforcement agent with a vast array of tactical and survival expertise — who tackles what it’d be like to be an off-duty police officer stuck in a sea of cars on the Pacific Coast Highway. And myself, I have been a survival instructor for the past 20 years, and am the author of a new book on survival and emergency preparedness, How To Survive Anything (yes, even earthquakes). I’m handling the hypothetical scenario in the opening of this article. These are our stories of rising above the rubble.
An 8.9-magnitude earthquake
You, your executive assistant, and an office full of coworkers
Downtown Los Angeles
Highs in the 90s F
The Setup: You’re a single 40-year-old financial hot shot with an even hotter girlfriend. You work in one of the huge office towers in downtown Los Angeles and live in Pacific Palisades. You work with Natalie, your 55-year-old executive assistant, and about 15 other people in your immediate department.
The Complication: It’s a blisteringly hot day in late August. You’re in the office finishing up the workday when an 8.9-magnitude earthquake rocks not just downtown Los Angeles, but the entire Southern California area. It rips up concrete, topples buildings, ruptures gas lines, and shuts down electricity. Fortunately, your office tower is still standing thanks to the seismic design in the building’s foundation, but inside it looks like a bomb has gone off. Shattered glass. Broken ceiling and walls. Toppled tables and shelves. People are screaming, if they’re not on the floor covered in debris. And you wake up to find yourself lying on the ground, blood dripping from your forehead and Natalie crouching over you, trying to help.
My highly structured life was thrown into chaos. The day started out normally. I got up at 5:30, went for a run, made a smoothie, and got ready for work. I’d planned on going with Jess to that Italian place tonight, so I decided to take the Porsche. I showed up at the office around 7, and as I got off the elevator, Natalie greeted me with the morning’s agenda and iced Americano. After checking my email and giving the portfolio a onceover, the morning dissolved into consultation calls and spreadsheets.
Suddenly, a distant rumble forced me to pause my call mid-sentence. Within seconds, the rumble had become a deafening roar, and the floor started pitching and rolling like some deranged amusement park ride. I managed to duck under my desk as light fixtures shattered to the floor nearby. That was the last thing I remember before blacking out.
I came to with Natalie leaning over me, frantically asking, “Are you OK?!” She had pulled me from underneath my collapsed desk, unconscious. Apparently part of the rafters had come down right on top of me, but the thick mahogany desk shielded my body from most of the impact. (It better have — I spent nearly 10 grand on that thing.) However, my head was bleeding profusely, and I knew I need to put some pressure on it immediately. Other than a few cuts and scratches, Natalie was unscathed. She grabbed the first-aid kit from my closet and helped me wrap the wound in gauze and tape. Holding my palm to my head to slow the blood flow, I cautiously stood up to survey the damage.
My corner office was a wreck. Toppled bookshelves, smashed flat-screen, ceiling tiles and concrete chunks littered the floor. I felt uneven ridges beneath the carpet, indicating the building’s structure might have been compromised — we had to get out of here before the inevitable aftershocks. Natalie and I stumbled out of my office to find yet more damage. The cubicles were in ruins, and the roof on the far side of the room had partially collapsed. Fortunately, it looked like everyone else in the office has already left — how long was I knocked out?
Before heading for the emergency exit, I remembered the get-home bag I stashed in my office. Its contents were pretty basic, but had enough supplies to last the day. I also pulled out the .38 revolver I secretly kept locked in the office. Memories of the 1992 riots never truly faded from my mind.
With the bag over my shoulder and the revolver in my pocket, Natalie and I started making our way down the dimly lit emergency stairway. After descending four of the 12 floors, an aftershock hit. Natalie and I leaned into the corner as dust rained down. We could hear the building’s structure groaning and cracking around us, but miraculously it held. Once the oscillations subsided, we continued down to the lobby. Incredibly, the massive chandelier still dangled in the atrium’s center, swaying lazily back and forth like a pendulum. We stuck close to the wall and clambered over debris, finally stepping onto the street through the gaping hole where a thick glass pane once was.
Basketball-sized chunks of rubble were strewn along the sidewalk, and Wilshire Boulevard’s asphalt was rippled and cracked as far as I could see in both directions. Hundreds of businesspeople congregated in the streets, some slumped over on the curb staring into their useless cell phones, others wandering aimlessly in shock. Knowing that another aftershock might be coming, we needed to get away from the multi-story buildings as soon as possible. I also told Natalie that I needed to find Jess at her law office just a few miles away; Natalie agreed. Our building’s attached parking structure had completely collapsed — I guessed that didn’t bode well for the Porsche — so we proceeded on foot.
After marching about four blocks, we were hit with another aftershock. We weren’t far from an aging 13-story building when I noticed it starting to buckle — it was coming down! Natalie and I ducked into an alley on our right just as the structure crumbled, sending down an avalanche of concrete and sending up a dust cloud. I quickly grabbed two dust masks and two safety goggles from my get-home bag. I’d seen buildings collapse on the news, and we didn’t want that choking gray cloud of debris lining our lungs or getting in our eyes. Donning the masks, we moved on through the haze that enveloped the street.
After it cleared, I noticed that my head wound was only oozing a bit. The last place I wanted to go during this pandemonium was a hospital.
Five more blocks passed, and things hadn’t gotten any better. I wondered how much of the state was affected? We approached the towering law office Jess works at to find it still standing. Sure, all the glass was shattered, but the structure was virtually undamaged — apparently there was something to that new earthquake-resistant construction after all. I recognized one of Jess’s coworkers out front, and she pointed me in her direction. Thank God, she was OK! After giving Jess a monstrous hug and a kiss, I discussed with her and Natalie what to do next. We decided to head for MacArthur Park down the street. At least it would get us away from these crumbling buildings and into some open space.
The park was crowded, and it appeared that LAPD had set up a makeshift aid station on one corner. I heard one of the officers say that the epicenter was in Pasadena, about 10 miles away. If it was this bad here, I couldn’t even imagine what it must have been like there. We headed for the other end of the park, found some shade, and finally sat down. My bag had enough water and protein bars to last until morning, and I still had the .38 revolver, so at least we could stay here in relative safety until we found a way to get back home.
Having lived in California my whole life, the idea of a “Big One” on the San Andreas fault was talked about ad nauseam. TV newscasters said it was inevitable, and Hollywood made movies about it, but it always seemed like one big running joke … “Sure, the weather here is great and all, but you never know when we’re going to break off and fall into the Pacific!” I’ll tell you one thing: I’m not laughing now.
An 8.9-magnitude earthquake
Seal Beach, California (30 miles south of Los Angeles)
Highs in the 90s F
The Setup: You’re a 35-year-old male who works as an officer for the Los Angeles Police Department, but you live about 30 miles south in Seal Beach, Orange County (partly so you don’t live in the jurisdiction you work in, but mostly because it’s beautiful and, as a surfer, you enjoy living along the coast).
The Complication: While driving on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), the “Big One” rocks not just Seal Beach, but the entire Southern California area. It rips up concrete, topples buildings, ruptures gas lines, and shuts down electricity. People are screaming if they’re not crushed under rubble. Traffic is ground to a halt as everyone figures out what’s happening.
It didn’t hit me at first. Mentally, that is. Driving a vehicle on the highway during an earthquake was definitely a strange experience and one that took a few moments to register. Driving south on PCH and watching an entire mountainside of land and road disintegrate and fall into the Pacific Ocean was my first clue that things just got serious. I slammed on my brakes and narrowly stopped in time before running off a newly formed cliff; those in front of me weren’t so fortunate. Once the violent shaking stopped, I jumped out of my truck to take a look at what I just witnessed. How do you process an entire section of highway just disappearing into the ocean? I wanted to go right to the edge and look over, to see what’s left and to see if I could help, but it was just too dangerous. My whole concept of terra firma had just been radically redefined, and I wasn’t about to let the earth swallow me too if I could help it.
I scrambled back to my truck, thinking about my options. Aftershocks were to be expected with an earthquake this severe. I needed to get off of what’s left of PCH right away before more sections of road crumbled beneath me. Then I needed to plan my next steps.
Dozens of people were wandering around, trying to make calls or send texts, but it was pointless. The entire communications grid had either been destroyed or was totally overloaded with calls. Nothing was getting through for a long time. Just then a text alert tone on my phone snapped me back to reality. It was an automated text message from the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which maintains a separate satellite communications system for emergency responders. It informed me that the Los Angeles Police Department’s disaster response emergency plan was now in effect and all personnel were to report to their duty stations as soon as practically possible. The last part always struck me as funny — “as soon as practically possible.” How was anything possible now? After almost 14 years as an LAPD officer, I thought I’d seen most everything there was to see, but this was just surreal. Still, I confirmed receipt of the message. At least someone would know I’m alive since I responded, I hoped. Now, it was time to get out of here and find my way to the EOC field station.
But I paused. I needed to be certain, my conscious spoke up. I couldn’t leave anyone down there. I jumped into the Ford Raptor and eased it forward as close to the edge of the crumbling pavement as I dared. Leaving the truck running, I went to the bed of the pickup and pulled out a 50-foot tow strap. I looped the strap around my waist and attached it to the front strap hook on the truck. Two young guys wandered up and asked me what was happening. I told them I was with the LAPD and that we needed to check to see if anyone was alive down there. Surprisingly, they offered to help.
I quickly told them the plan: “I’m going to crawl to the edge and see if I can see anything down below. If the edge gives way and I fall down, grab the strap and pull me up. If you can’t, then slowly back up the truck and it will pull me up.” They nodded in agreement. I noticed more people starting to wander up to watch the show.
Confident the strap was secured to my truck and, more importantly, to me, I crawled on my hands and knees toward the edge. As I got within a few feet of the edge, I transitioned to a low crawl, chest to the asphalt. Peering over the edge, I saw nothing — no vehicles, no people. Anything that was on the highway was now crushed under a mountainside of dirt and in the ocean. I offered a silent prayer and worked my way back from the edge. After a few feet, I stood and went back to the truck. By now, a small crowd of about 15 people had gathered around my truck as word has quickly spread that I was a cop. One of the young men asked if I saw anything. I could feel the entire group looking at me. Subtly, I shook my head, “Nothing.” The solemnness of the moment caught everyone. The look in everyone’s eyes expressed the exact same thought: That could have been me.
From the back of the group, in an almost imperceptible low voice, came the question everyone was thinking, “What do we do now?” I took a breath. “OK, people,” I said in my most calm yet authoritative voice. “Let’s get in our vehicles and slowly head back up the highway. We’ll try to work our way back until you can get a clear route to your homes.” As the crowd slowly dispersed, a voice in the back shouts, “We can’t!”
A woman cut through the group to get to me as the others stopped to listen to her: “About a half mile back, around the bend, the same thing happened. I saw the road in my rearview mirror fall into the ocean. A huge section is gone. We’re trapped here.” I asked her if she was certain. “Positive,” she responded. A murmur of panic spread through the crowd. F*ck me! How the hell am I supposed to get to the EOC field station now? I think while trying to maintain my calm exterior. The shaking ground quickly snapped me out of my thoughts. “Aftershock!” someone shouted. The ground rolled and wobbled violently. Another section of road, the same section I was just looking over, disappeared down into the ocean! Everyone tried to maintain their footing under the violent shaking. The aftershock lasted just 15 seconds, but it felt like an eternity. And the damage and the implications were crystal clear. This area was not safe and we need to move — now! The big question was how?
I yelled for everyone to listen up. The group settled down and looked at me. “We need to leave this area immediately!” I said. “How many of you have four-wheel-drive rigs?” Three hands go up. “OK, we’re going to drive right up over that small embankment and start driving inland away from the highway,” I commanded. “I don’t care whose land it is or what’s in front of us. We’re getting out of here. Take only what you need from your cars and get into the trucks. Children inside the cabs, the rest of you climb into the beds if you need more room. We’re not leaving anyone so squeeze in tight.”
Five minutes later, and the three other loaded trucks lined up behind my Raptor, ready to leave. I had several small children and a woman named Carmen inside my truck. I looked at the kids and asked, “Who’s ready for an adventure!” In unison, they yelled, “We are!” I looked at Carmen, and she let a little smile slip out from behind her nervous expression. “Let’s roll,” I said with a smile. I eased the truck up the grassy embankment and started driving inland, away from the newly formed coastline.
Unsure of what other destruction I might encounter, I figured I was hours away from getting to L.A. to report for duty. But at least I was fighting my way to safety and helping some folks along the way. I was keeping my fingers crossed that there would still be an EOC field station when I got there.
An 8.9-magnitude earthquake
You, your wife, your daughter, your son-in-law, and your granddaughter
Universal Studios Hollywood (9 miles north of Los Angeles)
Highs in the 90s F
The Setup: Hailing from Ohio, you’re a 55-year-old who’s on vacation with his wife (Joanne), your 25-year-old daughter (Natalie), your 26-year-old son-in-law (George), and your 1-year-old granddaughter (Dorothy).
The Complication: You’re boarding the Jurassic Park ride along with your daughter and son-in-law. Disappointingly, your wife Joanne is too faint-of-heart to go on this ride, so she volunteers to wait just outside the ride entrance with your 1-year-old granddaughter. Just as you’re allowed to board one of the ride’s “boats,” the mega quake rocks not just the theme park, but the entire Southern California area. Chaos erupts, as people aren’t sure what to do or where to go next. You look to your left and find your son-in-law’s toes and left sandal crushed by a metal pole.
When the quake finally stopped, I couldn’t ignore the pain of being tossed about like a rag doll. But looking over at my son-in-law, I know he was in a bad place. His face was pale. He was gritting his teeth and looking downward. I followed his gaze and was shocked to see the small pool of blood and piece of metal pinning his left foot to the floor panel of the ride. A support pole holding up the roofing for the nearby waiting area had fallen partially onto the boat — and on George’s foot. I pulled up on the pole, but it wouldn’t budge. Natalie was still seated between us, immobile and in shock. Fearful that the piping had pierced George’s foot, I tried again. The pole moved a little. Frustrated, I looked around for help, but the ride attendants and fellow park-goers were all in varying states of pain and distress.
We needed to help ourselves. I looked at Natalie. “I need you to focus!” I told her. “You need to help me lift this up and off.” I told George to lift, too. With six hands gripping the metal pipe, we hoisted the pole, and George slides his foot free. The wound looks awful and is now bleeding profusely. This can be dangerous for him, but a huge aftershock could be fatal for all of us. We have to bind George’s foot, find the rest of the family, and get to open ground where no more debris could fall on us.
I knew we had to get George mobile. I’d never been particularly fond of the fellow, but he had been a good husband and father so far. Seeing him put on a brave face for my daughter gave me a newfound respect for him. He said to go ahead and find Joanne and the baby, but I refused — we would stick together. I used one of Natalie’s extra shirts as a dressing for George’s foot. Then, with George in between us, Natalie and I lifted him. We began to hobble forward. The going was rough for us. The smooth walkways of the park were now jagged, broken chunks of asphalt and concrete. The path was littered with the dead, dying, and injured, who were having the time of their lives mere minutes ago. As our trio staggered toward the place where we last parted with Joanne, the sight of the injured children hit me the hardest. The crying and screaming of the young was almost deafening.
It seemed to be taking hours to traverse the 50 yards or so to where my wife and granddaughter had been waiting, but I was sure it was only a few minutes. A strong wave of nausea sickened me when I saw the bench where they had been sitting crushed beneath a fallen palm tree. But they weren’t there. They were missing, but at least we still had hope.
I called my wife with my mobile phone, but the lines were jammed, no doubt by tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people desperately calling to check on friends and family. I tried several more times, only to hear to maddening beeping that indicated the system was swamped I remembered that data might work more reliably than voice calls during disasters so I tried texting her as well. Where would she go with the baby? She would have tried to get to us, I thought. And then I heard the crying. A different cry that sounded familiar. And as I turned toward it, I saw my scratched and dirty wife emerging from the bushes next to the path — baby Dorothy in her arms, squalling and struggling to get free, reaching for her mother and father. The quake had knocked my wife off her feet several times, and the final time she ended up stumbling over a downed trash can and landing in the bushes. The reunion of parents and children would have been touching at any other time, but we were all just numb from the weight of the tragedy.
With the group together again, we weighed our responsibilities and our needs. George’s foot hadn’t stopped bleeding, and he needed proper dressings immediately. We stopped at every nearby souvenir shop and information desk, hoping the park officials would have emergency services set up. But they were all swamped with people more severely injured than George.
Then my wife reminded me about the medical kit in the car that we always traveled with. There was food and water in there as well. The only problem was that the parking lot was clear across the other side of the park. After a quick discussion, we decided that we couldn’t rely on the park’s overwhelmed paramedics and security guards. We had to fight our way to the car. So, we began our slow trek through the rubble and the chaos. On her last fall, my wife hurt her hip, so her movement was as slow as George’s. Natalie had to hold the baby in one arm while supporting her husband on the other side.
Fortunately, we must have had a guardian angel watching over us, because a voice called out: “Hurry! Hop on.” I turned to find a park attendant driving up in an electric vehicle. Thanking him profusely, I helped get George and Joanne into the back of his maintenance cart. I told him we needed to get to the parking lot to get our medical supplies in our car.
Without saying much, he floored the pedal. Under any other circumstances, I would have been frustrated by the cart’s measly top speed of 15 mph, but today I was more than grateful to be able to wheel around the pandemonium. He got us as far as the park entrance before dropping us off. “There’s still a lot more people back there who need my help,” our guardian angel said before speeding off.
The multi-level parking structure had collapsed and the sight of the adjacent parking lot was hardly a relief. It was if some giant toddler had strewn his toy cars around in a frustrated fit. Some vehicles were untouched and neatly sitting in their rows, while others slid off upheaved sections of earth and pavement and pancaked into other cars. Still more vehicles were nose down in deep crevasses. Thankfully the sign post near our parking spot was still standing, and we quickly found our car. The right side was pinned by the neighboring vehicle, but the left side was clear. I fished out my keys and opened the hot car. We lowered the windows, opened the two free doors, and blasted the A/C to cool the interior.
My wife, a retired nurse, pulled out the medical bag and went to work on George’s foot. She cleaned the wound and dressed his injury. As she worked, we listened to the news on the car radio: “…an 8.9 earthquake has leveled homes and businesses throughout the county and nearby areas.” I changed the station, hoping for news that wasn’t so obvious: “Stay in your homes and be prepared for multiple aftershocks…”
When my wife finished with George, she looked at me with a peculiar expression. She looked ashamed. The words “survivor’s guilt” flickered in my mind for a moment, but I didn’t have time to explore the thought. “We have to help the others,” she said matter-of-factly, the way she does when she’s stating not asking. “I know,” I replied. We set up George, Natalie, and the baby as comfortably as we could at the car. And with the threat of aftershocks and God knows what else still in my mind, my dedicated wife and her reluctant husband hauled the medical bag and went back into the park.
Although this story is a work of fiction, an earthquake of this magnitude is a real possibility. An 9.0 off-shore earthquake shook Japan on March 11, 2011, creating a 30-foot-tall tsunami and taking the lives of over 15,000 people. This natural disaster also created a technological disaster, when the Fukushima power plant was destroyed and subsequently released radiation into the air and the sea water.
Less severe, but closer to our story, 60 lives were lost in the Northridge, California, earthquake of 1994, which was a mere 6.7 on the Richter scale. Have no doubt that an 8.9-magnitude quake in a densely populated area would be a disaster the likes of which we’ve not seen in modern times. And while there’s no way to predict exactly what the future holds, it’s a safe bet that natural disasters like this will continue to happen, just as they’ve happened since the birth of this planet. For those living in an earthquake-prone area, take steps to ensure your family’s survival. Stock up on supplies that will support you in the aftermath of the disaster. Keep some supplies at home, at work, and in your vehicle. Make plans for your family’s actions during a quake. Have a rally point in case you’re separated and the phones are out.
Above all, take this threat seriously. You don’t have to move or become a shut-in — just be aware that a disaster like this can happen at any time. And while no one can stop a tremor from happening, anyone can take steps to be better prepared in the event of an earthquake.
Tim MacWelch has been a survival instructor for more than 20 years, training people from all walks of life, including members from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, the State Department, DOD, and DOJ personnel. He’s a frequent public speaker for preparedness groups and events. He’s also the author of three New York Times-bestselling survival books, and the new Ultimate Bushcraft Survival Manual. When he’s not teaching survival or writing about it, MacWelch lives a self-reliant lifestyle with his family in Virginia. Check out his wide range of hands-on training courses that are open to the public at www.advancedsurvivaltraining.com.
Erik Lund has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience - with much of that time spent as an instructor of frearms, defensive tactics, and use of force. He served as a Virginia State Trooper before accepting a position as a federal agent. Lund is also a senior instructor at Mike Seeklander’s Shooting-Performance LLC, a tactical training company. As a champion competitive shooter, he’s earned several regional, state, and national three-gun titles and is ranked as a grandmaster by the United States Practical Shooting Association.
[email protected] Patrick McCarthy is the web editor for OFFGRIDweb.com, as well as a frequent contributor to the printed magazine. He is a writer and photographer with an avid interest in survival and the outdoors. Patrick made his first foray into journalism as the Associate Editor of Truckin magazine, traveling to truck and offroad events around the country. He later moved on to become a freelance contributor to several Enthusiast Network titles, providing editorial content and photography. Patrick currently resides near Phoenix, Arizona.