Nightly News   |  January 17, 2014

‘Just a Matter of Time’ Before Big Quake Hits California

A minor earthquake registering 2.6 on the Richter scale happened almost 20 years to the hour from the Northridge earthquake that killed 60 people. This week’s quake was a minor event -- but experts say another major earthquake will eventually strike.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> there was another mild earthquake in california today, just enough to jolt a ton of people from their beds before dawn . no damage reported. but it also served as a reminder because it happened on the 20-year anniversary of the north ridge earthquake that skilled 60 people, caused billions in damage. tonight the experts are speculating about the next big one. our report tonight from nbc's mike taibbi .

>> reporter: the shaking started at 4:31 a.m . and only lasted ten to 20 seconds, but daylight showed the impact from the magnitude 6.7 earthquake.

>> this three story parking structure collapsed.

>> reporter: one of the highest ever recorded in a north american urban area .

>> i couldn't move. i was so scared.

>> reporter: the toll from the north ridge quake? some 60 deaths, 9,000 injuries, buildings and freeway bridges crumpled, burst water mains and gas lines, unleashing floods and fires at the same time, $25 billion in damages. this firefighter rode that morning to what used to be the north ridge meadows apartments.

>> a three story collapsed all the way down.

>> reporter: 16 first floor residents died here. his rescue of one man was featured in "time" magazine. he worked with other first responders for 36 hours straight.

>> he was a big one. we knew it was a big one.

>> reporter: but whnot the big one. what if the epicenter was beneath the skyline of downtown l.a. ? what if it wasn't a quiet north ridge dawn but a red flag day citywide like these have been with gusting santa ana winds ? this seismologist, dr. lucy jones, made the rounds leading up to the north ridge anniversary, by showing this video of the big one and posing the question, can you imagine america without l.a.?

>> we estimate 1600 fires will be started. if we then have a santa ana wind condition we will not be able to keep those fires in control.

>> reporter: internet and cell service could be lost for days or longer, the death toll in the thousands. and whether it's a long edge of the san andreas fault that unzips or a smaller, secondary fault as in north ridge , ernie oheda says --

>> it's just a matter of time.

>> reporter: here those are not just words. mike taibbi , nbc news, north ridge , california.