Oregon Trails: Earthquake in Klamath

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KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — 20 years ago, the Klamath Basin was turned upside down as a series of earthquakes rattled Southern Oregon. It caught many people by surprise, and led to new procedures for dealing with major disasters in Klamath County.

From Redding to Roseburg, Southern Oregon and Northern California residents wondered what was going on about 8:30 Monday night, September 20th, 1993.

“I saw the wires move first and then we heard the bang,” one witness described at the time, β€œThe noise and then the building stared shaking, and saw the bricks fall off the side of the building!”

When the dust settled, there were collapsed walls and cracked bridges and buildings, smashed cars, and two people dead. One of those was a Phoenix man who died when a boulder rolled off this embankment and smashed the truck he was driving on Highway 97 near Modoc Point. His wife walked away from the accident. The other fatality was that of a woman who suffered a heart attack during the 5.76 magnitude quake.

“It did destroy the courthouse or destroyed it to the point where it couldn’t be used, and couldn’t be rebuilt. So, we have a new courthouse as a result of that,” recalled Klamath County Emergency Director George Buckingham.

At first it was thought the courthouse could be repaired. In the meantime, county offices were dispersed all over town wherever space could be rented. When engineers learned the extent of the damage, county officials ordered it torn down, and a new building built on the same site. County leaders say they were lucky there wasn’t more damage or more serious injuries.

Other bridges in the basin underwent scrutiny to be sure they were safe. The place where the rock rolled down and killed the Phoenix man has undergone extensive repairs in the years since to catch tumbling boulders. Soon afterwards Klamath Falls Mayor Todd Kellstrom sought to calm fears. Learning to co-ordinate emergency services was a major outcome of the quake disaster.

“We found in public safety that we needed to all be together in a more quiet location where we can have the command and control; we need to actually respond to emergencies,” said Klamath Co. Sheriff Carl Burkhardt.

Now, in addition to a new courthouse, the government center across the street has been rebuilt, and many downtown businesses that suffered damage have either rebuilt or been torn down. Ironically, the Historic Baldwin Hotel, just a couple blocks from the courthouse, suffered little or no damage, even though it is built of brick.

Much like the Biscuit Fire more than ten years ago that led to a lot of people focusing on fuel reduction around their homes, the earthquake of 1993 in Klamath County led to a new awareness about the dangers of earthquakes in Southern Oregon.

At the time, geologists said there were about 2,500 quakes in the Klamath Basin in the four months surrounding the September 1993 quake, but most were 3.0 or less on the Richter scale and were not felt and caused no damage.