The strongest earthquake to hit Southern California in 20 years rocked the region Thursday, igniting fires, triggering a hospital evacuation and shaking the area for hundreds of miles.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the magnitude 6.4 quake was centered near Ridgecrest, an inland Kern County city about 150 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Multiple large aftershocks rolled through the region, in the Mojave Desert, in the minutes that followed.
Multiple injuries and two house fires were reported in Ridgecrest, a town of 28,000. Emergency crews were also dealing with small vegetation fires, gas leaks and reports of cracked roads, said Kern County Fire Chief David Witt.
The quake was felt in Los Angeles all the way to Las Vegas, more than 250 miles northeast of L.A. Social media lit up, and photos showed debris shaken from shelves in the Ridgecrest area.
Glenn Pomeroy, head of California’s Earthquake Authority, said the quake is “an important reminder that all of California is earthquake country.”
“It’s important to know what to do to stay safe when the ground starts shaking – drop, cover and hold on," Pomeroy said. "And to take other steps to prepare to survive and recover from damaging earthquakes, such as to retrofit homes built prior to 1980 and the advent of modern building codes, which may be more vulnerable to earthquake damage, and consider earthquake insurance to protect ourselves financially.”
Pomeroy urged the estimated 2,000 people in the region hit by the quake with California Earthquake Authority insurance policies to contact the agency as soon as possible.
Christine Goulet, executive director for Applied Science at the Southern California Earthquake Center, said the quake was felt over such a wide area because it was relatively shallow, only five or six miles deep. Goulet was in Los Angeles, west of downtown, and told USA TODAY she knew immediately it was an earthquake.
“Everything was swaying, it felt like being on a boat,” she said.
A magnitude 4.3 quake reported earlier was a foreshock, she said. She said it was possible the 6.4 quake was a foreshock and a bigger one is coming, but it's more likely the number and intensity of aftershocks will decline over time.
The Kern County Fire Department said the Ridgecrest Regional Hospital was evacuated. The department said it was working nearly two dozens incidents ranging from medical assistance to structure fires in and around the city of Ridgecrest.
Mayor Peggy Breeden said at least five fires broke out in the city.
“It almost gave me a heart attack,” said Cora Burke, a waitress at Midway Cafe in Ridgecrest. “It’s just a rolling feeling inside the building, inside the cafe. And all of a sudden, everything started falling off the shelf, glasses, the refrigerator and everything in the small refrigerator fell over.”
In the Kern County city of Bakersfield, Emma Gallegos told the Los Angeles Times the chiles hanging in her kitchen began shaking.
"I was in my kitchen trying to get some coffee, and all the windows started rattling," she said. "It was just a little bit at first – I thought something was going by, and then I realized all the windows were rattling. It was kind of a long gentle roll.
In San Bernardino County, east of the epicenter, the Fire Department reported no injuries or fires. Authorities said multiple buildings had minor cracks, some water mains were broken, power lines came down, and some roads were blocked by rock slides.
The Los Angeles Fire Department tweeted: "We are aware of the significant earthquake that just occurred in SoCal PLEASE do NOT call 9-1-1 unless there are injuries or other dangerous questions Please do not call for questions."
#EarthquakeResponse @kerncountyfire resources working nearly 2 dozens incidents ranging from medical assistance to structure fires in and around the city of Ridgecrest, CA. @kerncountyfire Urban Search and Rescue teams en route. #kerncountyfirefighters— Kern County Fire (@kerncountyfire) July 4, 2019
LAFD said later that it found no signs of any significant damage or injuries in the city, although a damaged water main and three limited power outages could have been related to the quake.
USGS reported that the quake started 11 miles outside Ridgecrest at 10:33 a.m. The agency originally reported it had a magnitude of 6.6, later scaling it down to 6.4. Aftershocks of 4.7 and 3.0 magnitudes were reported minutes later, and scores more of less strength followed.
Lucy Jones, a seismologist and founder of the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science & Society, said it was the strongest quake to hit the state in 20 years. Some aftershocks could exceed magnitude 5.0, she said.
“When you just went through a big rattle it can be distressing,” Goulet said. “It should be taken as a warning to get prepared. Because a larger one will happen eventually, we just don’t know where or when.”
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay tweeted that she has lived in Los Angeles all her life and it was "the longest earthquake I’ve ever experienced."
"Not jerky. Smooth and rolling. But it was loooong. It was so long I thought for the first time ever 'Is this the big one?' Damn," DuVernay said. "Respect Mother Nature. She’s the boss."
Contributing: Joseph Hong, Palm Springs Desert Sun; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Strongest earthquake to hit Southern California in 20 years rattles region, rumbles residents