EarthquakesThe Disaster that Helped the Nation Prepare for Future Earthquakes: Remembering San Fernando

Published 22 February 2021

The San Fernando earthquake struck Southern California 50 years ago, killing 64 people and costing over $500 million in damages. The quake prompted federal, state and local action to reduce earthquake risks and bolster public safety.

The San Fernando earthquake struck Southern California 50 years ago, killing 64 people and costing over $500 million in damages. The quake prompted federal, state and local action to reduce earthquake risks and bolster public safety.

At 6 o’clock in the morning on February 9, 1971, the reservoir keeper of the Lower Van Norman Dam in Southern California tried to get out of bed.  

He couldn’t. A magnitude-6.6 earthquake was shaking his home nestled at the bottom of the dam. After checking on his wife and child, he drove to the top of the dam to examine the damage. “It was hard to believe what I saw,” he said.  

The Lower Van Norman Dam, which sat above the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County, had nearly collapsed in the wake of the quake. “As wind-whipped waves chewed at the damaged lip of the 1,100-foot Van Norman Dam, police spread through a nine-square-mile area between the reservoir and the Ventura Freeway, warning residents to evacuate,” The Los Angeles Times reported on February 10, 1971. Approximately 80,000 people did evacuate as officials lowered the water levels in the dam.  

The 1971 San Fernando, or Sylmar, earthquake was the worst to hit an urban area of California since the 1933 magnitude-6.4 Long Beach quake. It led to 64 deaths and more than $500 million in damage. It prompted Governor Ronald Reagan to declare Los Angeles County a disaster area and President Richard Nixon to send Vice President Spiro Agnew to inspect the area.  

After the San Fernando earthquake, the State of California enacted the Alquist Priolo Act to limit construction along faults that likely caused earthquakes able to rupture the ground surface in the last 11,000 years. 

On the federal level, Congress renewed its interest in earthquake safety, held hearings and introduced new bills to establish a national earthquake research program. Congress eventually passed the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977, which led to the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, or NEHRP, and was pivotal in helping establish what is now the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program. 

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