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50 Years Ago Today The Deadly Sylmar Earthquake Terrified Southern California

An aerial view of the interchange of the Foothill and Golden State Freeways after the San Fernando earthquake in February 1971. The collapse cut off a main north south route. (Photo by R. E. Wallace / Courtesy USGS)
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Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Sylmar Quake — also called the San Fernando Quake — which damaged the Van Norman Dam and led to the evacuation of 70,000 people.

The magnitude 6.6 earthquake struck at 6 a.m. and ultimately killed 64 people and caused $500 million in damage. That damage included the startling collapse of the newly-built Olive View Hospital in San Fernando (pictured below).

Seismologist Lucy Jones says that collapse — and other significant damage throughout the region — led to many new safety regulations and substantial changes in building codes. And in 1981, a decade after the quake, the city of Los Angeles passed the very first retrofitting ordinance.

"And that was revolutionary when it happened. It was a big fight to get it through. But the ability to go back and say, 'you've got to fix that old building' has been critical to improving our safety in California."

The Sylmar Quake also led to the creation of the
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National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program, which funds most of the U.S. Geological Survey work on earthquakes.

Listen to our full interview with Lucy Jones, who spoke to our newsroom's local news and culture show, Take Two, which airs on 89.3 KPCC:

The fracture pattern near the Sylmar Converter Station above the Van Norman Dam. (Courtesy USGS)
San Fernando Veterans Administration Hospital in Sylmar suffered significant damage in the 1971 earthquake. (Public domain/Courtesy USGS)
A view of the damage at Olive View Hospital after the San Fernando earthquake in February 1971. (Courtesy USGS)



We don't want to scare you, but the Big One is coming. We don't know when, but we know it'll be at least 44 times stronger than Northridge and 11 times stronger than the Ridgecrest quakes in 2019. To help you get prepared, we've compiled a handy reading list:

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