Hot Line Serves Jittery, Gullible, Wacky Public
Nov. 26, 1992
PASADENA, Calif. (AP) _ California's new earthquake hot line is swamped with calls from people who are jittery, gullible, information-starved or just plain weird.
Some callers check in so often operators fondly refer to them as ''quakies.''
The California Earthquake Safety Hotline opened in early August, five weeks after two major quakes on the same day killed a child, injured 400 and caused more than $92 million in damage. It will be in operation at least until the end of the year and may become permanent.
One caller wanted to know if it was true that 10,000 body bags had been shipped to Landers, site of one of the two big quakes to hit June 28.
''And we took a call from a person wanting to know if it was true they were putting pillars in Utah so when California fell off they would have a place to dock the boats carrying people going out to look for survivors,'' said Stef Donev, a spokesman for the hot line.
Then there was a woman who said she was a middle-school science teacher who ''had it on good authority that the San Andreas fault was widening at the rate of one inch an hour,'' he said.
There are not 10,000 body bags in Landers, there are no emergency pillars in Utah and the slippage on the San Andreas fault is about an inch a year, Donev said.
The first day there were 695 calls. In October, after the state warned a strong quake could rock central California within three days, there were 500 calls in a single day.
In a more typical day, some 50 or 60 calls come in; in all, hot line operators have logged 6,500 calls.
One of the most often asked questions is: ''Can the ground open up and swallow you?'' Donev said. ''No one we know of has ever been swallowed or trapped inside a fissure. Cracks can appear in the ground, but the ground does not close back up,'' he said.
Another popular question: ''Is there earthquake weather?''
The answer is no, Donev said. ''We have computer people who do nothing but run data through computers. They look for common denominators. So far, shaking is the only one they've found.''
Many callers seek information on how to prepare for quakes. They get brochures. Some people want reassurance they have done the right things preparing their homes or offices. They go through checklists with the hot line workers, two of whom are geophysicists.
Some people are just plain scared, Donev said. He remembers a Santa Monica woman who started calling every day after the June 28 quakes.
''She would live in her home fine during the day, but she slept in her car every night. She finally overcame her fear and is now sleeping in her home again.''
He estimates about 10 percent of the callers are quakies - ''people who call on a regular basis. They call several times a week wanting to know what's new and interesting.''
Some of them have set up homemade seismo-gizmos they claim will alert them to quakes. Others track quakes and aftershocks on maps.
''It's sort of the new game, tracking earthquakes,'' said geophysicist Sandra Steacy.
One of the quakies, Geraldine Hartshorn Wheeler of Claremont, has been an earthquake buff for 40 years.
''The news reports are too meager. I find earthquakes a fascinating study,'' said Wheeler, 73. ''I hope I can keep on learning until I get senile and I hope that never happens because life is too interesting.
''I try not to call too often. I know they are busy. Some weeks I'll call two or three times.''
The hot line - with an 800 number good only in California - is operated jointly by the state Office of Emergency Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency on a monthly budget of $13,400. It was supposed to close in October but has been extended through the new year and there is talk of making it permanent.
OES spokesman Tom Mullins said the quake hot line is the only one of its kind in the country.