“Members in Coalinga Respond to Earthquake,” Ensign, July 1983, 77–78
An earthquake measuring 6.5 on the Richter scale hit the central California town of Coalinga (population about 9,000) on May 2. While many homes and businesses were devastated—the downtown area was destroyed—no fatalities were reported.
Of the two hundred members of the Coalinga Ward, Hanford California Stake, none were seriously injured. Many homes of members sustained damage, and about ten families lost their houses. These members moved in with friends and relatives or began to live in borrowed trailer houses.
“It’s a miracle no one was killed,” said Brother Edwin Netherton, one of the members whose house was shaken off its foundation. The Nethertons and three other families set up housekeeping on the church parking lot in trailers, borrowed from Church members in the stake.
“Members, and nonmembers, too, called to tell us what was needed, whether it was help with cleanup, electrical or plumbing repairs, major repairs on foundations, chimneys, or whatever,” Sister Netherton explained. “I posted these needs each day on the bulletin board, then sent word to Brother Jack Morgan in Hanford, our high councilor in charge of emergency preparedness. He arranged work crews from within the stake to come to Coalinga to make the repairs.”
By nightfall of the day of the quake, all of the members had been accounted for. One ward member, Donald McNeece, a ham radio operator, got information through to another ham operator in Hanford that Church members were safe. That information was relayed to the stake president, Gerald Thompson, who lives in Hanford. (Hanford is forty-five miles from Coalinga.) The next morning, President Thompson and his first counselor, Arlan Haroldson, visited Coalinga.
Many used their stored drinking water for the hours immediately after the quake.
Said Inice Greathouse, Primary president, “My husband used to complain about my water storage jugs cluttering up the patio. But when we had to use the water after the quake, and it tasted so good and fresh, he didn’t feel the same way about the clutter.”
James and Shirley Sirman put many of their jugs of stored water on their front porch and invited neighbors to share it. “We wanted them to know we had stored water and we wanted to share it with them,” said Sister Sirman.
For nearly two weeks after the quake, stake Relief Society President Noleen Obert and her counselors arranged for evening meals to be taken into the Coalinga ward each day. She also helped coordinate teams of women to assist in cleaning homes of members and many nonmembers as well.
“We really didn’t have to have the food brought in each night,” said Coalinga Bishop J. Elliott Fowkes, “but it was great not to have to worry about that when we had so many other things to do.”
“Even more than food,” said Iona Fowkes, the bishop’s wife, “the gathering of the whole ward at the building each evening was so special. It was very therapeutic for all of us to be together, to talk to each other, to listen to each other’s problems and to offer support. If it had not been for the dinners, I don’t think we would have gotten together like that.”
The first Monday evening after the quake, stake Relief Society women not only took food to Coalinga, but entertainment as well. One sister dressed up like a clown and made the children laugh, another took her guitar and sang. On other evenings, films were shown and Primary children sang songs. Something that wasn’t planned, that happened spontaneously each evening, was a volleyball game on the lawn behind the church.
“The volleyball games were an outlet,” said Brother Sirman. “They helped everyone relax, especially the kids.”
The Sirmans said one of their six children was afraid to sleep in the house for almost two weeks after the earthquake. Another child was afraid to go out of the house or away from his mother. Sister Sirman, like many other Coalinga parents, accompanied her children to school when it was reopened for half days until the end of the school term. Children did not want to be separated from their mothers.
“You can prepare for emergencies, have food and water stored, but being prepared emotionally and psychologically for disaster is something else,” said Sister Sirman.
Coalinga ward members were probably better prepared for the quake than many wards would have been, because, surprisingly, emergency preparedness had been the subject of recent training sessions and the bishop’s ward newsletter message.
In fact, six days before the quake, the Coalinga ward welfare committee, along with ward welfare committees from other wards in the Hanford California Stake, met in Hanford for an emergency preparedness training session. After seeing a film about earthquakes, the bishops were given copies of the Church booklet, Preparing for and Responding to Emergencies: Guidelines for Church Leaders. Members were divided according to their wards and presented each with a hypothetical situation and given thirty minutes to discuss solutions to their problems.
One ward was “assigned” a hurricane, another a flood, another an evacuation due to a chemical spill. The Coalinga Ward was given an earthquake. Each ward was asked to discuss how they would handle their assigned disaster.
When each ward took its turn to consider its assignment, it was evident that they needed to go back into their wards and work on preparedness. Even though it was only days until Coalinga’s real earthquake, the bishop had at least pondered many of these questions and was better able to respond to the emergency than he would have been if it were not for the session.
Four weeks before the quake, the Relief Society had shown the earthquake film to sisters in the ward and had given them booklets published by the U.S. Department of Defense.
Brother Jack Morgan said that after the Coalinga disaster, he thinks everyone in the stake will be more teachable when it comes to emergency preparedness. “I think our reaction to this disaster went as smoothly as it did because we had recently been reviewing all of this information,” he said. “There are, of course, many areas where improvements can be made.”