A year ago July 5 I was crunching on foot through warm asphalt wearing flimsy shoes to photograph a house fire while texting Sports Editor Lauren Jennings immediately after the second Ridgecrest earthquake. As a joke I texted, "Is it too late to re-do the front page?" along with a photo of the fire.
I was kidding but that's pretty much what she did. In a moment of supreme adaptiveness Lauren added a banner update to our latest edition reporting on the 7.1 quake, while working from a brewery — this last detail I didn't know until I saw her interview with Christine Kim from NBCLA on TV later.
The DI's speed and responsiveness so impressed CNN that they did an article on our newsroom and my photos of the fire were used all over the world as some of the first images of the biggest earthquake in California for 20 years.
It was like nothing I had ever been through before, an experience most surreal. I had no doubt that that weekend would go down as the strangest period in my life, but I was wrong.
If someone had told me a year later Lauren and I would be reporting on the one-year anniversary of said quakes from home because a deadly pandemic had swept the globe causing a health crisis of historic proportions, I would have assumed we were all traveling down some Alice-in-Wonderland wormhole where anything is possible.
That may well be true, but here we are. It's the one-year anniversary of the now-named Ridgecrest Earthquake sequence and I am supposed to write something about my experience of the time.
I did a blow-by-blow account of what I went through back then, so this will be more impressionistic. To establish my earthquake credentials, yes I was in Ridgecrest for both quakes and reporting the whole time. It was a whole lot of hours and not much sleep and what I remember now is in bits and pieces. The whole thing was an experience outside of time.
I remember driving from the office at 4 a.m. July 6, after hanging around to film CNN's morning show via Skype. I remember the utter silence, the summertime warmth and seeing people sleeping in their yards because they were afraid to go back inside.
Other memories include attending the press conference with Governor Newsom, seeing our city leaders fanned out behind him in City Hall and knowing they were getting even less sleep than I was.
Newsom talked about California as earthquake territory and how this is linked somehow to what makes our state so magical. I agree. I also remember a sermon by Pastor Eddie Thomas at Victory Baptist Church the following day, where he tackled the same question from a theological perspective. These two moments stand out as a first stab at working through the experience on a philosophical level. It felt cathartic and both times I nearly cried. Prior to that I was just reacting, reacting, reacting in work mode.
The most haunting memory to me was the time lag between the first earthquake and the second. If you weren't here it is impossible to describe. We had been through a 6.4 quake and resilience was kicking in. People were cleaning things up and feeling good. But something hung in the air, and not just in retrospect. Hundreds of aftershocks continued. It was unnerving. That statistics we kept hearing were something like a one in 15 chance of a bigger event to follow, but it felt more certain than that. Some people had a bad feeling that this wasn’t over yet.
And they were right. When the bigger one hit, there was a feeling of "I knew that was coming" at least for me. My mom and I were driving back from dinner at Casa Corona, a good place for a last meal. I had my camera with me. My mom pulled over to the side of the road, the car bounced up and down and the rest is history. It wasn't that bad. At least until the work began.
My mom's alternate plan for that night was to take in a movie. Assistant General Manager Amanda Diaz who made the decision to close Ridgecrest Cinemas may well have saved her life, along with many others.
But the period between the two quakes, the waiting haunts me still. Part of me wonders why we didn't all get the hell out of Dodge? I know I wouldn't have. I would have stayed and done my job. But it is disturbing to realize we could have.
It also haunts me because the eye of the tornado, lull-between-the-storms quiet reminds me of what we are going through now, with COVID-19. We are waiting for the other shoe to fall.
‘Today in History’
One of my jobs at the DI is to lay out a section called “Today in History.” If you read the paper you have probably seen it. Part of the section includes listings for “Ten years ago,” “Five years ago,” and so on.
I have wondered off and on whether anything I am part of will ever make that list. But it caught me by surprise when it did.
Today’s listing reads “One year ago. The strongest earthquake in 20 years shook a large area of Southern California and parts of Nevada, causing injuries and damage in the town of Ridgecrest, near the epicenter. (A stronger quake would follow a day later.)”
So I guess it’s official. It would have been nice if they mentioned Trona, but we are a part of history.
I can’t wait to see what the next year brings.
Jessica Weston is an award-winning columnist and the city editor for the Daily Independent. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org------ The views expressed are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the official stance of the Daily Independent.