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Northridge Rocks: Our Uneasy Relationship with Earthquakes

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Building with Earthquake Damage
Building with Earthquake Damage

I like to tell the story of the 1994 Northridge earthquake because it makes me look good. When the quake struck on January 17th at 4:31a.m., I was bottle-feeding our ten-month old son.

In the interest of honest journalism, let me be clear. In the however many months of our son's suckling, this was one of the very few times I took part. But in a strange juncture of fate, I was holding a bottle to his mouth when the quake struck. At least I think the bottle was in his mouth. I confess I may have been sleeping.

As anyone who lives in Southern California knows, the Northridge quake was sizable. With a magnitude of 6.7, and an untoward power on other fronts that only seismologists understand, it remains one of the two most destructive quakes in recent memory (the other being the 5.9 Whittier Narrows quake in 1987). Fortunately we live in Ventura, some 50 miles to the north, but, as sizable quakes do, the Northridge quake still rocked us. In Northridge/Reseda (The latter is where seismologists later placed the quake's epicenter), blocks of earth 10 miles by 10 miles moved. Take a moment to dwell on that. Perhaps this is why, regarding earthquakes, it is very hard to pinpoint our emotions.

However I can say unequivocally that my initial reaction to the Northridge quake was pure terror. I woke with a start, and then I was scared as hell. Our house was moving in ways that a house shouldn't move, swinging at first, and then jerking angrily, and it seemed to me that the walls actually undulated, in the fashion that a still lake transforms when someone knocks the beer cooler off the boat. I know this is not seismologically proper terminology. I'm just telling you how it was. All of this was highly disconcerting. I have since read that the shaking lasted 10 to 20 seconds, but anyone who has ridden out a quake knows that it seems much, much longer.

Since it is bad form to toss aside a sleeping infant and bolt for the door, I kept my (relative) cool and heroically rode out those first terrible and nauseating jerks where I sat. Across the hall I heard my wife shouting from our bedroom. I shouted back, telling her to stay in bed until the quaking stopped. She did. This also marked one of the few times she has listened to me.

The quaking stopped, but the quaking didn't. Hands and legs shaking, I held our son close. He continued to feed, exhibiting the supreme focus he now applies to his studies as a UCLA aerospace engineer. Children, and time, are like that.

My wife, who is very literal, was out of bed the instant the shaking stopped. We met in the hall. There was a second jerking shock (this first aftershock measured 6.0). We braced, wide-eyed, in the doorway. When it ended, my wife might have pried the bottle's nipple out of our son's nose; I don't recall exactly. My memories of the Northridge quake are both murky and laser fine. Having ensured that our son could now breathe through his nose, the three of us went outside, where our neighbors were already gathered in the street.

I have always known that outside is a bad place to be, both during and after a quake, but in the immediate aftermath of a severe rattling the gyroscope of one's common sense is reset. All we wanted was the company of our fellows. When we met in the middle of the street (remember what I just said about common sense), everyone stood in their night things, talking fast. At least one of us was drinking a beer. Down the street a transformer sparked and smoked. Given we were all awake and casually dressed, the beer drinker, with an air of nonchalance, suggested an earthquake party. A block away another neighbor had a more honest reaction to the quake; suddenly finding himself in the middle of the street in his underwear. For the rest of the day we watched endless footage of the collapsed Northridge Meadows apartment complex where 16 people were killed and kept our loved ones close.

As we stood in the street beneath the slowly lightning sky, to the south of us, chaos unfolded. Civilization's supports fell away like battleground smoke. No water. No electricity. Fires raged. Trains derailed. Overpasses fell away. People died. And in those moments nothing could be done about it. The earth's movement, and its immediate aftermath, was beyond our control. Smoke and dust and ash rose with the dawn.

Not the last time in California, and not the first.

At best, our relationship with earthquakes is uneasy.

Earthquakes are an inevitable part of our future. Not just California's, of course, but the world. And here in California we wait for the Big One. Sometime in the next 30 years, say the experts; and possibly today.

A KCET interoffice memo distributed following the Northridge earthquake in January, 1994. | Photo: KCET Archives
A KCET interoffice memo distributed following the Northridge earthquake in January, 1994. | Photo: KCET Archives

Seismology, like any of mankind's sciences, is still a work in progress. The Northridge quake occurred on a fault line we had yet to discover. The San Andreas fault was once the fault that made us all quake, but five years after Northridge, seismologists discovered another fault line (now called the Puente Hills fault line) that could make the San Andreas fault look like Mr. Rogers. The Puente Hills fault runs right under the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles. How one predicts such things is beyond me, but the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that a massive quake on this fault in the 7.5 range could kill from 3,000 to 18,000 people. There are estimates of dollar damage too, but I don't really care about them. In a worst case scenario, three-quarters of a million households would be left homeless.

Figures are antiseptic, but here's one more. A magnitude 7.5 quake would be about 30 times stronger than the 6.7 Northridge quake. If you experienced the Northridge quake, this seems unimaginable.

As you likely know, the Big One has already happened. On April 18, 1906 at 5:12 a.m., a foreshock ran through the entire San Francisco Bay area. The earthquake followed 20 seconds later, violent shocks punctuating a fearsome shaking which lasted almost a minute. The earthquake, which actually occurred along almost 300 miles of the San Andreas fault, was felt in central Nevada. San Francisco burned. Smoke and dust and ash rose with the dawn.

My grandmother (then seven) was sleeping in a hide-a-bed when the San Francisco quake struck. The bed promptly folded up into the wall, where she rode things out. She grew up to be tough and irascible. I don't know if there was any connection.

Earthquakes are in our family's blood, and there I'd prefer they stay. But they won't.

Smoke and dust and ash will again rise with the dawn.

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