Here’s a fact of life for folks living in California — when the ground shakes, rattles and/or rolls, the first thought that comes to mind is a question:

“Is this the Big One?”

So far, the answer has been not yet, but it’s coming.

The recent big quakes that shook people in California fell short of Big One status, but earthquake experts say they could be signs of bigger things to come.

Technically, the so-called Big One would be a quake of magnitude 8 or more on the Richter scale. Each point up on the scale is devastatingly more powerful than the previous number.

Even much smaller quakes can be very destructive. It all depends on the depth of the tectonic plate slippage, and the concentration of people and buildings. The Loma Prieta event in the San Francisco Bay Area measured 6.9 on the scale. That happened in 1989 and was a major disaster in the Bay Area, killing 67 people and causing more than $5 billion in damage.

A quake of that size can be felt for a considerable distance, including here on the Central Coast. The big earthquakes that occurred recently also could be felt here, in the Los Angeles Basin and in Las Vegas.

Lots of movies have been made about earthquakes, and all of them are scary for folks living here. Our personal favorite, “2012,” was not exclusively about earthquakes, but about the end of the world, which of necessity involved a lot of tectonic plates shifting.

Most of our shakers are just that, with few injuries and maybe some property damage. There are exceptions, such as Northridge in 1994, and the Bay Area in 1989.

The question that generally follows a strong quake is — if the Big One happens, will California fall into the ocean, giving bordering states some prime waterfront property?

The short answer is — no. California is reasonably well-planted on the top of Earth's crustal layer. However, this state also sits atop two major tectonic plates. Past movement of those plates produced the San Andreas fault rift.

Actually, California averages about 800 earthquakes a month, but we only feel a small fraction of those events. Still, it’s a little daunting to know that while you go about your day’s business, earthquakes are happening at the rate of more than one an hour.

The worst recorded quake in history happened in Chile in 1960, a 9.5 on the Richter that killed nearly 2,000 and caused billions in damages. One has to assume that if a 9.5 event occurred in any of California’s major metro areas, the human and financial losses would be exponentially worse than the Chile catastrophe.

Now, are you sufficiently frightened? Have we listed enough statistical earthquake information to leave you just a tad paranoid?

We hope so, because having a healthy regard for what can happen could save your life when it does happen. It’s the same with earthquakes, wildfires and flooding from torrential winter rains. These events may move at different speeds and have variable timelines, but all are capable of wiping out lives and property.

Our advice for quake preparation is very much what it is for wildfire preparation — have an escape plan, including safe routes out of harm’s way. Prepare an emergency survival kit with all the basic necessities. And go over your plan with family and loved ones so everyone knows exactly what to do in case you’re separated when the disaster strikes.

It eventually will. Maybe not in our lifetime, but it’s best to be prepared.

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