60 years since earthquake devastated Bakersfield

60 years since earthquake devastated Bakersfield
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Saturday is the 60th anniversary of one of the most powerful earthquakes in California history, and it happened right here in Kern County.

Eyewitness News is looking back at how the quake changed the face of Bakersfield forever, talking with survivors about that day that cost the county $60 million in damages - $60 million in 1952 dollars.

The earthquake originated from the still active White Wolf Fault. In Tehachapi, Bakersfield and Arvin, many buildings were damaged, some collapsed. The force of the earth's motion was so strong that Bear Mountain was actually moved up and to the north. It was a day survivors say they'll never forget.

On July 21, at 4:52 a.m., the ground beneath Bakersfield, Tehachapi and areas as far south as Long Beach felt the earth shake. The 7.3 magnitude earthquake, centered near Arvin, is still regarded as the third largest quake to hit California.

"The hedge was bouncing up and down, and you could see the sidewalk moving," said quake survivor Robert Alfred Johnson, who lived in the San Fernando Valley, and, despite being on the other side of the Grapevine, his house sustained damage.

Closer to the epicenter, Bakersfield's architecture was changed forever. In 1952, the Beale Memorial Clock Tower stood in the center of town. It was badly damaged in the earthquake, but some of the parts were saved and it was rebuilt in front of the Kern County Museum to preserve our local history.

"It just started shaking everything up," said survivor Maudie Waltz. Only 21 years old at the time, she lived at Minter's Field and remembers the panic spreading amongst her friends. "She was just screaming and hollering, and she started to fall and I caught her."

Johnson and Waltz say they'll always remember the days after the quake. Travel was cut off by cracked highways and train tracks twisted beyond repair.

"It's something you don't ever forget," said Waltz.

Twelve people died as a result of buildings collapsing during the quake.

An aftershock hit a month later.

These days, the Kern County Engineering Department has better building codes in place.

"Now, we attach the foundations all the way up through the roof, so the buildings are restrained, so they hold together and don't detach," said Chuck Lackey, director of the Kern County Engineering Department.

But those codes are for new construction, and there are many old buildings made of bricks, which crumble when the ground shakes.

"In the early '90s we took inventory of all of the commercial buildings throughout the county. We found out there were 200 unreinforced masonry buildings at that time," said Lackey. To ensure a safer structure, unreinforced masonry buildings get secured with steel rods drilled into the walls. "That's one of the main goals is to hold everything together so it doesn't fall apart during the earthquake."

In fact, the county building that currently stands at M Street had its own transformation, entirely replaced for safety reasons.

"This building that we're in today was once an unreinforced masonry building built out of adobe, and some of the adobe is still in this building as a reminder of the old buildings that were here," said Lackey.

The county says that of the 200 unreinforced masonry buildings surveyed in the 1990s, just over 100 still stand today. Some have been reinforced, others were simply torn down.