What happened when a 'hurriquake' struck Ojai? Little damage, plenty of weird vibes

Ojai, CA - August 21: People walk across the street downtown Ojai, where a 5.1 earthquake occurred amid a historic tropical storm Hilary in Ojai Monday, Aug. 21, 2023. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
People walk across the street in downtown Ojai, where a 5.1-magnitude earthquake struck in the middle of Tropical Storm Hilary, a phenomenon locals are calling the "hurriquake." (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The 400-pound Buddha hanging askew on the wall was the only sign Dharma & Dog, a purveyor of raw pet foods and metaphysical gifts, had gone through two natural disasters in one afternoon.

"It takes four men to move it," store manager Carol Crosby said of the stone tablet. Or, as she learned Sunday, a 5.1-magnitude earthquake.

Residents of the Ojai Valley over the weekend found themselves in the unexpected position of preparing for one disaster and getting another.

A stone wall hanging depicting Buddha hangs askew.
A Buddha stone wall hanging that weighs 400 pounds was knocked crooked Monday after a 5.1 earthquake at Dharma & Dog, an Ojai store that sells healthy pet food and spiritual gifts. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

As Tropical Storm Hilary bore down on Southern California, Ojai was jolted by an earthquake, shaking homes and businesses like a bomb going off.

Neither disaster did much damage in the town of about 7,600 people about 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles. The tropical storm weakened to a steady rain, and though books tumbled off shelves and several stores mopped up broken bottles of wine, there were no reports of deaths, serious injuries or structural damage as a result of the quake.

By Monday, most evidence of the earthquake was gone from downtown Ojai. On the quaint main street, a few candles and paintings were tipped over in display windows in a Spanish Colonial Revival arcade. With the cleanup mostly done, the disaster double-feature had become something for Ojai to laugh about.

"Everybody is calling it the 'hurriquake,'" said Nate Howard, manager of the Ojai Beverage Co., a liquor store on the main drag.

Push notifications began to warn Southern California residents of the risk of flash flooding just a few hours before alerts about the earthquake arrived. Memes began to circulate instantly, as well as a T-shirt that read: "I Survived Hurriquake Hilary."

But before it was a joke, Sunday's earthquake was strong enough to be scary. The temblor jolted the Ojai Beverage Co. building with such force that Howard thought someone had yanked his desk chair out from under him.

As the shelves swayed, a $900 bottle of tequila slid off a top shelf. The bottle didn't break, Howard said, but the cork popped out, and the contents spilled across the floor.

As the employees cleaned up, they realized there was enough left in the bottle for everyone to "get just a little sip," Howard said. (And how does $900 tequila taste? "Pretty good.")

A woman puts bottle on a shelf as a bucket with a mop stands nearby.

The store also lost more than a dozen bottles of wine, four cases of beer and about five other bottles of spirits, Howard estimated, though with less-notable price tags. Many other bottles were intact but had stained labels. It was unclear whether those bottles could be sold.

"Who pissed off Mother Nature?" asked Jillian Furino, 38, manager of the Westridge Market & Fine Foods, a local grocery store on the eastern edge of downtown, closer to the epicenter. "A hurricane and an earthquake — what are the odds?"

Furino was working Sunday afternoon, taking inventory of milk cartons, when the store started to shake. She grabbed the edge of the deli case for support, and shouted to her team, "Everybody, stay still!"

A woman in a shirt with the name badge Jillian stands in front of shelves of wine.
Jillian Furino, manager of Westridge Market & Fine Foods, talks about cleaning up thousands of dollars of wine and spirits that fell off shelves and broke during a 5.1 earthquake in Ojai on Monday. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

When the shaking stopped, she locked the store's doors and began to film the damage. "Oh my GOD," she said, the frustration evident in her voice, as she walked across the liquor section.

People think about the sounds and feelings of an earthquake, Furino said. But in the aftermath, it was the smell that was overwhelming.

Liquor bottles had smashed. A river of wine flowed across the tile floor and puddled in the condiment aisle, merging with a multicultural mush of olive oil, soy sauce and horseradish.

The employees used shovels and trash bins to clean up the mess, filling the store's trash bin. By Monday afternoon, after hours of mopping, the only sign of the chaos was a faint whiff of tequila in the liquor section. (Their most expensive bottles rode out the quake, unscathed, in a locked cabinet.)

Furino had spent Sunday morning worrying that their back room could flood if the rain got too heavy, but it was "not the problem we ended up having," she said.

It is a metaphor for something, although she wasn't sure what.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," she said. "In a bad way."

People cross a street between archways.
People walk across the street downtown Ojai, where a 5.1 earthquake occurred Monday. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Ojai has been a bohemian and spiritual retreat for wealthy residents of Southern California for more than a hundred years. That energy is still palpable in town, where visitors and residents can visit meditation centers, psychics and stores that sell crystals and other metaphysical items.

At Dharma & Dog, singing bowls and tarot cards were laid out in neat rows. A refrigerated case held raw pheasant and venison dog food. Rows of tables displayed a wide array of crystals, including smoky quartz, said to provide protection and survival instincts.

The shaking, Crosby said, had dislodged some glassware and plates and left a few other frames on the wall askew. But all things considered, she said, it could have been worse.

"There are a lot of energies in here," she said.

Crosby was followed everywhere by her Rhodesian Ridgeback, Anaiya. The dog, whose name means "freedom" in Sanskrit, hadn't left her side since Sunday afternoon.

A dog sits behind a store counter.
Anaiya, who was shaken up after feeling a 5.1 earthquake at Dharma & Dog, a store that sells healthy pet food and spiritual gifts, in Ojai on Monday. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Anaiya calmed down when a customer walked in with a puppy named Magic. The two dogs, who are cousins, happily sniffed each other, as a cashier who declined to give her name said she wasn't quite sure how to feel about the earthquake and the tropical storm.

"I'm doing some of my own research," she said. "I'm a bit of a conspiracy theorist."

A dog behind a counter and a puppy held in a woman's arms sniff each other
Anaiya, left, shown greeting Magic and V. Pappas of Ojai, was shaken up after feeling a 5.1 earthquake at Dharma & Dog. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

She wasn't the only one.

Next door at the Rainbow Bridge Market, cashier Amy Allen, 42, said she wondered whether the earthquake was caused by a Doppler radar tower on top of a mountain east of town.

She said she learned about the conspiracy theory through a YouTube channel. But the 98-foot tower, which the National Weather Service uses to forecast severe storms, has been a source of local controversy since its installation in 1993.

A group of residents led by the now-deceased actor Larry Hagman (known for his roles in "Dallas" and "I Dream of Jeannie") fought for years against the tower's placement on Sulphur Mountain Road, saying it was an eyesore and posed health risks.

Government studies have concluded the radar is not dangerous, and there is no evidence it caused the Ojai earthquake.

Andrew Shaw, left, manager, and Amy Allen, cashier, at Rainbow bridge natural

Allen, 42, said she spent her Sunday morning shift — hours before the shaking started — talking about earthquakes. In retrospect, she realized why.

"It was a gut feeling," Allen said. "I felt it, the energy of it. The ions in the air were shifting."

As the earthquake hit, the metal ducts hanging from the market's ceiling began to sway back and forth. Allen threw herself over her co-worker to try and shield her. Soon, bottles were tipping off the shaking shelves, and the floors were doused in olive oil and wine.

Dana Smith, a citrus grower in Ojai, said he'd just plugged in his electric guitar and strummed the first note when he felt a "concussive" impact on his house.

The quake, with no rolling or shaking, was like none he'd felt before, he said. At first, he thought an oak tree had fallen on the house. He walked outside to check.

A backhoe loader carrying orange pylons and a keep-left sign drives down a tree-lined street.
Heavy machinery drives down the street in downtown Ojai, where a 5.1 earthquake occurred amid a historic tropical storm in Ojai on Monday. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

"I saw the trees were fine, and I thought, 'Far out," Smith said. "Then I saw waves in the swimming pool."

Yes, he said, it was weird to have a tropical storm and an earthquake at the same time. But the wild weather weekend had created one bright spot: Because of the rain, he didn't have to irrigate his Valencia orange trees.

"I love it," he said, "because I don't have to work."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.