The text messages began circulating about five minutes after an earthquake warning was sounded by the St. James’ Episcopal Church in South Pasadena on Sunday morning.
About 80 congregants, clergy and choir members lay on pews and covered their heads as a simulated earthquake hit the sanctuary. After about 20 seconds, the parishioners got up and left the church, heading to the designated meeting place in the adjacent open parking lot.
Most church members texted the group’s designated leaders, letting them know they were safe and out of the building.
Some patrons did not respond, however. And others gathered in the parking lot stood directly in the path of a telephone pole and could hear the power lines, which could cause serious bodily harm if Sunday’s drill is a strong earthquake.
Seismologist Dr. Lucy Jones, a California earthquake expert and the chief architect of Sunday’s drill, noted the end. Six of the seven groups responded that their patrons were safe and that no one was injured or missing.
“Actually, it’s better than I thought it would be,” said Jones, a parishioner of St. James’, laughing. “I thought we were going to have a comedy of errors, actually, and this was a nice surprise.”
St. James is one of six Episcopal parishes, out of 135 that make up the Los Angeles Diocese, that will participate in Sunday’s disaster recovery effort. Drills were also held at All Saints of Riverside, St. Andrew’s in Irvine, St. Edmund’s in San Marino, St. Luke’s in Monrovia and St. Peter’s in San Pedro.
Churches, temples, mosques and other faith-based institutions can serve as important places to help communities prepare for natural disasters, Jones contends.
In 2016, after more than 30 years with the US Geological Survey, Jones launched the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, and she created the Connected Communities Resilience Program aimed at helping community and faith-based organizations as well as local governments. and nonprofits create community-resiliency action plans to prepare for earthquakes or other disasters.
In a program established for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, churches are called to understand the risk their parishioners face – whether from earthquakes, extreme heat, flooding or fires – and then develop a program to strengthen the disaster.
“When we talk about earthquake preparedness, that gets everyone’s attention,” Jones said. “But it’s also about preparing and being resilient for other disasters that happen as well.”
Potential steps in these preparedness plans may include reducing the earthquake vulnerability of the church as well as members’ homes, stocking emergency supplies of water and food or creating a cooling center for in severe heat waves. Churches may also decide to organize parishioners into groups assigned to the text of parishioners with mobility impairments to see if they need assistance.
Other action items may include evaluating the church building for structural safety and securing bookshelves and electronics to the walls.
Jones classifies the fight to stop climate change as a “moral imperative” but also says it’s important to understand that “facing more disasters” is inevitable.
The best way for communities to survive is to “minimize what’s needed for recovery” after a disaster, he said.
Two approaches to accomplishing that are mitigation – retrofitting assessments and flood risk assessments, for example – and building community bonds. With the latter, Jones said communities that share resources and stay in communication have a better chance of recovery.
Rev. Melissa McCarthy, canon ordinary of the Diocese of Los Angeles, emphasizes that proximity is not always an advantage in community building.
The diocese’s first cohort included three parishes in the San Gabriel Valley within minutes of each other, along with churches in Irvine, Riverside and San Pedro.
He said the earthquake centered in the San Gabriel Valley would likely leave three neighboring parishes in need, while the damage was less severe in other areas.
“At that time,” he said, “a parish like that of Irvine can come with help and vice versa if there is a fire in Irvine, which has happened in the past.”
Earthquake damage potential is a non-theoretical pursuit of St. James’. In 1987, the Whittier Narrows’ magnitude 5.9 thrust fault earthquake shook the church on October 1 while a 5.3 aftershock struck three days later.
The 75-foot bell of St. James was broken into cracks, bricks and pieces of the cornice. While the church and bell tower were being renovated, the structures were also retrofitted for the earthquake.
“Some of the tower collapsed, and plaster covered everything inside the church,” said 92-year-old Jan Arenz, who is a congregant of St. James’ in 1987. “For two years, we met in the parish hall, so earthquake safety is rare and necessary.”
Arenz admitted that he was not “fully reclining” on the chair, leaving his feet on the ground because the position was uncomfortable.
When Jones announced that an earthquake had occurred, 81-year-old Pasadena resident Judy Barbatoe immediately covered her head.
The retiree, who uses a wheelchair, hopes to avoid a hypothetical falling plaster ceiling.
At that moment, Barbatoe became aware of all the dangers and handicaps around him: close-hanging chandeliers and stained-glass windows along with wheelchair-accessible exits.
“Sometimes you need events like this,” he said, “to learn all the dangers around you and how to best prepare.”
Sunday’s earthquake drill comes days before the annual Shakeout. At 10:19 am Thursday, people across California and other states will drop, cover and hold – the best advice for dealing with shaking during an earthquake.
Officials are encouraging residents to download MyShake, the free earthquake early warning app available on iOS and Android and developed by UC Berkeley. MyShake will send a test drill alert during the ShakeOut drill Thursday.