This Month in Cal OES History: 1987 Whittier Narrows Earthquake

Nearly 30 years ago, just as another Thursday morning workday was beginning in Southern California, a magnitude 5.9 earthquake, commonly referred to as Whittier Narrows, rattled the San Gabriel Valley on Oct. 1, 1987 at 7:41 a.m.

Centered several miles north of Whittier in the town of Rosemead, the earthquake caused an estimated $358 million in property damage, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS). There were also eight fatalities and several hundred injured.

Although the initial rupture caused the most significant damage, a magnitude 5.2 aftershock three days later contributed to additional injuries and one death. The aftershock alone was stronger than the magnitude 4.2 Whittier earthquake in 1929, which heavily damaged a school and two homes.

Damage from the 1987 Whittier Narrows Earthquake was more extensive, primarily in surrounding communities, including:

  • Buildings collapsed in Pasadena, about 26 miles from Whittier, and the earthquake could be felt nearly 300 miles away in Las Vegas, as well as in San Diego and San Luis Obispo.
  • Business structures in the old Whittier commercial district were severely damaged and, within a 24-square-block shopping area of Whittier Village, 12 commercial buildings had to be razed and another 20 buildings were deemed unsafe.
  • 123 single-family homes and 1,347 apartment units were destroyed, while 513 single-family homes and 2,040 apartment units sustained major damage in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties combined.
  • Ruptured natural gas lines caused approximately 70 small fires, and windows were shattered at the Burbank airport.

The magnitude 5.9 was the strongest earthquake in the Los Angeles area since the 1971 San Fernando Earthquake, which was a magnitude 6.5. The Puente Hills thrust fault, which stretches from the San Gabriel Valley to downtown Los Angeles and caused the Whittier Narrows earthquake, was also responsible for a 5.1 earthquake near La Habra in 2014.

The persistent threat of earthquakes occurring in California is a constant reminder to be prepared and have a plan ready. Later this month, The Great ShakeOut will educate Californians on how to Drop, Cover and Hold On at 10:20 a.m. on Oct. 20.

Additional resources and more information about the Whittier Narrows Earthquake:

Cal OES Earthquake Preparedness


Great ShakeOut



Jonathan Gudel

Jonathan Gudel is a Public Information Officer for the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES). Since joining Cal OES, he has assisted in the response and recovery efforts of the Aliso Canyon Gas Leak, the state's historic drought, the Oroville Dam Emergency Spillway Incident, unprecedented winter storms in 2017, the October (Sonoma County) and December (Santa Barbara County) 2017 wildfires, and statewide wildfire siege in 2018 . Previously, he worked in the newspaper industry for 12 years.

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