Ten years ago, the California Division of Mines and Geology came up with a scenario for what would happen if a magnitude 6.8 quake occurred on the Silver Strand Fault. Interstate 5 would "be closed from Balboa Avenue on the north to Palm Avenue on the south," the report predicted. "Both I-5 and old Route 101 will also be closed where they cross each of the coastal lagoons south of Oceanside.... The Coronado Bridge will be dosed.... For planning purposes, San Diego International Airport will be closed for all but emergency or vital operations for a period of two weeks.
"Other predictions in the planning scenario added detail to the grim picture. Major SDG&E transmission substations Mare particularly vulnerable to damage by earthquake shaking," and conductor lines swinging together could cause many “bum downs.” Furthermore, “for planning purposes, the South Bay Power Plant should be considered to be out of operation for three days and at a significantly reduced capacity for one and a half weeks following the scenario earthquake.” Water mains bordering Mission Bay and San Diego Bay, the coastal areas, western Mission Valley, and the Otay Valley “will suffer several breaks per mile of pipe. Landslides in the Mt. Soledad area, coastal regions of La Jolla, the north wall of Mission Valley, and the edges of Otay Mesa may also damage facilities and distribution mains. As a result, several of the above-mentioned areas will be without water for up to four weeks following the scenario event.” The main sewage interceptor along San Diego Bay “will be out of service for six weeks,” and the natural gas transmission line that runs along the coast “will be out of service for more than 72 hours.” Older hospitals “may be considerably damaged — not collapsed, but nonfunctional.”
The report pointed out that similar consequences would follow a magnitude-6.9 quake on the Rose Canyon Fault. Recently my two sons and I paid a visit to where the fault cuts across Tecolote Park a block east of Interstate 5’s Sea World Drive/Tecolote Road exit. Beyond the park’s recreation center, on the south side of the road, two baseball fields occupy separate levels of the hillside. If you climb to the upper one, you glimpse a small sign posted behind the fence to the left of centerfield. The Rose Canyon Fault runs up the exposed slope next to the white metal placard.
The sign explains that the tan and cantaloupe-colored rock on the left side of the fault is 50-million-year-old Eocene sandstone, while the putty-colored conglomerate on the right was formed only a half-million years ago. The two adjoin each other today because great masses of the earth on either side of the trace have moved in opposite directions over the eons and brought dissimilar formations such as these two into alignment. They could grind past each other again at any instant, and as we tried to stand astride where the fault continued northward under the grassy ball field, I wished it would move. A major quake at that spot at that moment might have knocked us off our feet, bucked us like a wild stallion, and panicked us for 15 or 20 seconds. But it wouldn’t have killed us. I imagine we would have marveled at the experience for the rest of our lives.
No one can conjure up an earthquake. Otherwise not just journalists but geologists might be the death of us. They reap a wealth of information every time a big one pops, though they usually do it after the fact. San Diego State University professor Tom Rockwell confessed to me, “Most of us who study earthquakes would love to be right on the San Andreas Fault in a magnitude 8. But only, only if we were out in the desert and there was nothing to fall on us. None of us have a death wish.... If you’re out in the open, however, you don’t have to worry about the earth opening up and swallowing you. That doesn’t happen.”
One thing I’ve learned from Rockwell and other local geologists is that when a big quake does hit San Diego County, where you happen to be standing will make a big difference indeed. Forget about the citywide aftermath, the messy picture sketched out by the state report. That’s another story. I’m talking about the minute or so during and immediately following the quake — the interval in which the great majority of the terror, destruction, and death will occur. I’m talking about the particular patch of the earth that’s underneath you then.
A number of factors will make an earthquake intense or dangerous, the geologists say. One is the location of the epicenter. The earth’s crust in San Diego County has fractured in thousands of places, and the Rose Canyon Fault is only one zone where significant slippage has occurred in recent geological history. It’s the one that slices through the most populated and vulnerable neighborhoods in the heart of the city, however. So let’s consider it first.
The Rose Canyon Fault is one segment of a fault that extends northward at least to Los Angeles. (North of San Diego County it’s known by other names.) It never actually crosses the county line but instead can be found about three miles off the coast of North County. It approaches the land and reaches it at La Jolla Shores, cutting inland at Princess Street. Just south of there, the fault bends east, and in Rose Canyon it resumes its southward course, running along the east side of Mission Bay, through Old Town, and under eastern downtown San Diego. Geologists think it splits into many branches after that. Some of these cross the bay and Coronado, then run south along the coast past Baja, until they finally merge into the Agua Blanca Fault.
According to Tom Rockwell, geologists identified the Rose Canyon Fault sometime early in the 20th Century. But when Rockwell joined the faculty of San Diego State in 1983, a debate was roiling over whether the fault was active (defined by geologists as having moved in the past 10,000 years). The answer seemed obvious to Rockwell. Something had pushed up the landmass south of La Jolla Shores to form Mt. Soledad. Farther south, the same force had depressed the ground below sea level to create the city’s two bays. It also had created finer-scale features that Rockwell thought would have disappeared if more than 10,000 years had passed since the Rose Canyon Fault’s last rupture.