I was camping. My then-boyfriend and I, his niece, and our dog were sound asleep in our tiny camping trailer that Monday morning, MLK Day. The days at the beach north of Santa Barbara had been hot, but the nights were seriously chilly by Southern California standards, even for mid-January. We’d had fun, though, and when the time came to wake up, it would also be time to begin thinking about heading home. The boyfriend’s parents, who’d also joined us on the trip, had left on Sunday afternoon to return home.
The trailer shook. Startled awake, I immediately knew what the shaking was: it was an earthquake. My boyfriend tried to convince me to go back to sleep, thinking that the epicenter of the jolt was nearby. But something whispered to me that this wasn’t a local 4.0, and I turned the radio on. It was just after 4:30 in the morning, dark and cold.
For those of you fortunate enough to have never experienced an earthquake, particularly a sizable one, I can relate what we felt, but what those felt and heard at and around the epicenter was beyond my imagination. The trailer seemed to dip suddenly, and then it felt as though it was being violently tilted from center to one side and back over and over. And then it rolled….like sitting in a boat on a lake being lifted and dropped by the wake of a much larger boat passing by. In my experience, the farther you are away from the epicenter of a good sized shaker, the longer the rolling lasts. I’d imagine there’s science behind that being so.
I haven’t thought a lot about that morning twenty years ago, so I’m reaching back into the deeper recesses of my brain trying to recall details. I don’t remember what the radio said in those first few minutes, other than that there had indeed been a sizable earthquake. We were over 100 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, and I knew immediately that if the Los Angeles news radio station I was listening to was reporting it as a large earthquake, and that we felt it THAT strongly THAT far away, it was at least a 6.0, and probably bigger. I remember listening for a few minutes. The LA radio station, KFWB, had put a traffic helicopter up and the traffic reporter shockingly reported that large swaths of the Los Angeles area were pitch black.
Wearing relatively skimpy pajamas, I scrabbled through the contents of pockets and wallets looking for change for the pay phone I knew was about a quarter of a mile down the road from our campsite. The awesome brick cell phone I owned was useless, and I needed to get in touch with family. I ran to the pay phone with a pile of quarters in my hand and began dialing. His parents. My parents. His best friend. My next door neighbor. Nothing. Three tones: “Due to the earthquake, all circuits are busy. Please try your call again later.” Finally, in desperation, I called my grandparents in Orange County, well over 60 miles south of my hometown. My grandfather, who’d been through the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, was grave. “Get home,” he told me. “This is going to be really, really bad.”
We immediately packed up the trailer. We dumped our gray and black water at the dump station and filled the fresh water tank to the top. Then we ran to the gas station and filled up on gas, and spent a small fortune in the convenience store on batteries, flash lights, bottled water, boxed pasta and canned goods. And then we began the long, painful, scary drive down Highway 101 back home. Just south of soon-to-be ex-Congresscritter Buck McKeon’s district, several of the towering overpasses that comprised the Newhall Pass had collapsed, and that path of return was closed to us. Instead, we had to take a much longer route along the coast and through the Conejo Valley before hooking back north. Between the traffic, the damage, and the length of the drive, our usual 90 minute trip lasted over four hours. I shook the whole way. One of my most vivid memories was of a Howard Johnson’s hotel somewhere on the valley floor with enormous shards of glass hanging like spectral guillotines from the façade. There was glass, and water, and bricks, and concrete. Everywhere. Dust plumes towering from the mountains to the north and west. Fires. Chaos.
I’m a native of the San Fernando Valley, whose vast sprawl is immediately north of downtown. My family, and that of my then-boyfriend, lived about three miles apart in the northeast corner of the valley, about seven or eight miles as the crow flies from what would eventually be determined as the epicenter of what came to be known as the Northridge Earthquake. It was pegged as a 6.7 (although conspiracy theories circulated that the quake had actually been a 7.1, but that supposedly that would mean FEMA would have had to pay money to homeowners without earthquake insurance and so President Clinton put the kibosh on the higher magnitude….see, even earthquakes get tinfoil hat treatment!) and lasted only 10 seconds, but resulted in some of the fastest ground peak acceleration rates ever recorded. It was also fairly shallow, striking at a depth of just under 12 miles. Long story short: it was on the low end of “big” by magnitude standards, but other factors made it a lot worse than it might have otherwise been.
We were fortunate. My family’s house suffered almost no damage, save for a couple of broken china cups and saucers. My boyfriend’s family wasn’t so lucky. The chimney pulled away from the back wall of the house, affording a previously-unavailable view of the pool via a gigantic crack in the wall. The rooms were studded with huge X-shaped cracks in the walls, and nearly everything that could break did. And maybe worst of all, the many fish aquariums in the house had toppled, killing the fish and spilling several hundred gallons of water into the carpet, ruining the beautiful oak floors underneath. Plus their precious Lincoln Towncar got dented up when tons of crap they stored in the garage rafters fell. Sigh. Odd things happened, too: the stem of a broken glass goblet was holding up the pedestal of the dining room table, causing it to tilt. A silk plant on the toilet tank fell to the floor and, when the violent movement lifted the toilet from the floor, the leaves of the plant got trapped beneath, even though the toilet remained bolted to the floor.
Neither my family nor my boyfriend’s family were particularly injured financially. Both houses were safe to occupy, although the boyfriend and I spent over a week in the trailer just for peace of mind in light of the near-constant aftershocks. But we had no running water for several days, and both the electricity and gas were off for nearly a week. It was pretty inconvenient for us, but for the 50-plus people who died and thousands who were injured and/or homeless, it was far worse.
The most glaring and obvious damage was to freeways and roads, big commercial buildings and apartment and condo complexes. But for those of us who lived in the area, smaller but no less significant instances of damage became problematic as time wore on. For example, although there were no bridge collapses, the raised roadbed of Interstate 405 through the valley dropped by upwards of a foot in several places, even as the overpasses that allowed traffic to pass beneath the highway remained stationary. The result was that, as a driver approached an overpass, he or she found a several-inch high difference between the roadbed and the bridge deck. It took a while and a lot of flat tires, but eventually CalTrans used asphalt to build temporary ramps on each side of the affected overpasses to smooth out the highway’s surface.
Streets were crazed with cracks and littered with broken chunks of asphalt. Sidewalks buckled, creating navigational hazards for pedestrians and, in some cases, barriers for the disabled. Water mains broke. So did gas lines. One poor man and his dogs were caught unawares in the middle of a major street after a main broke and the rushing water killed his engine. The guy tried repeatedly to start his truck, unaware that a gas line had also broken. The spark during his attempts to start the truck resulted in a huge explosion that wiped out several houses on both sides of the street. Amazingly, the truck’s owner survived with severe burns and walked with his one remaining dog for miles until he was taken to a hospital. I remember the terror of the drive home, during which we had to pass through an intersection where a broken gas main was shooting unignited fumes into the air. It was off to one side, and people were driving on the wrong side of the street to skirt it. You could see the shimmer of the gas in the airand the smell of the odorant was enough to make you gag. But there was no other way to go….it was stop, or go through.
The ground shuddered almost constantly for days on end. I remember that first night vividly, camped out again in the trailer and completely exhausted, only to wake up every few minutes as the trailer rocked. Sometimes, it was just a little rattling. Other times, it was out-and-out heaving. I remember the shaking, and don’t remember when it stopped. Eventually, for the most part, it did.
My ex’s redneck parents had all kinds of odd things around the house, and one of those things was a tiny television that could be connected directly to a car battery (and there were DOZENS of those in their garage). By late afternoon of the first day, we were able to see grainy pictures of the world beyond. Two mobile home parks just a few blocks away were leveled by fires. Freeway bridges dozens of miles away had come down. It seemed that most of the world I’d grown up in had been crushed, twisted, broken or burned. Cal State Northridge, my alma mater, suffered substantial damage. One of the iconic pictures of the storyline, a newly-opened parking garage, was on the east side of campus and had been built the last year of my studies. The picture showed the garage folded in on itself, the concrete columns bent toward the ground in almost graceful arches.
Even weeks and months and years later, there were reminders. We went to see a movie a few weeks later, and the theater concessions could only sell canned soda because we were still under a boil order for drinking water. And of course, we had an aftershock in the middle of the movie. A few years later, I saw the movie “Volcano”, and that night we had a 5-point-plus aftershock. When the towering bridges in the pass were reopened, I struggled driving over them, and if I was the passenger in the car I’d tightly close my eyes until I knew the bridges were behind us.
At the time, I was a freshly-minted Republican voter, having cast my very first vote two years earlier for Ross Perot. I was incredibly bigoted (something I remain ashamed of twenty years later) and a firm believer in the so-called free market economy. When President Clinton came to the valley in the days after the earthquake, I mocked both him and FEMA director James Lee Witt as a couple of bleeding heart losers who were handing out free money to “illegal aliens” and deadbeats. I openly sneered at large groups of Latino apartment dwellers who decamped to parks and cooked over grills rather than return to their decimated homes, irately ranting that their modest tents and chairs were “third world”. In other words, I was a flaming jerk.
Looking back now on what happened in the weeks, months and years that followed through my liberal filter (and how that transition occurred was chronicled in a long-ago diary here on DKos), I can see several stunningly awesome examples of how government actually HELPED people who needed it during a disaster.
· FEMA provided funds to a lot of folks who lived in apartment buildings that were condemned, and that money enabled them to move to new homes and helped pay for new furnishings. A coworker received about $3500 after she lost everything in her apartment. There were stories about fraud, but I’d be willing to bet that such cases were very small in number. Just like voter fraud and welfare fraud, the myth outruns reality. I think FEMA did a terrific job in helping people pick up the pieces and move on. They were there right away, and they stayed a long, long time.
· Although the work was farmed out to private contractors, CalTrans ensured that the freeways and highways that were damaged were back in service in VERY short order. Early predictions were that transportation via Interstate 5 and 10 and state highways 14 and 118 would be impacted for potentially years, but because CalTrans immediately started the process of demolition and reconstruction and provided sizable bonuses for early completion, the nightmares of road travel (particularly through the Newhall Pass) lasted less than six months.
· An earthquake insurance fund was created by the state after private insurers took it in the shorts and stopped writing coverage after the earthquake. It’s not terrific, but it’s certainly better than nothing.
· Revisions to building and safety codes were passed, including requiring that hot water heater tanks be secured to walls and changing to the structural requirements for apartments after the collapse of the Northridge Meadows complex, which killed over a dozen of its residents.
· When the freeways fell, commuters almost immediately began using public transportation, especially from the Antelope and Santa Clarita Valleys north of the Newhall Pass. When I myself moved to Santa Clarita a couple of years later, I, too, took the train into the city. The earthquake made trains and buses far more attractive than they’d ever been before, and in the time I was commuting via train, I rarely saw it less than packed. Good thing those Federal and State transportation budgets made it possible.
I have changed a lot in the twenty years since Northridge. I realized the error of my ways and converted to liberalism in the wake of 9/11. I left California and have never desired to move back. I’ve been married, divorced, remarried, had a kid, become my disabled brother’s caregiver. I would estimate that 99% of the people I was close to during that time are no longer a part of my life. But even without injury or death among those I cared for, even without losing a home or a job, even with just enduring inconvenience and discomfort for a while, that day and its aftermath have marked me nonetheless. I don’t ever want to experience something like that again.
I was (un) fortunate enough to endure a substantial earthquake in the Puget Sound area in 2001, and I’m pleased that I have since traded earthquakes for blizzards. I still have a lot of friends and family in the danger zone, though, and I recoil in concern every time a whisper of the e-word flutters through Facebook. Now, twenty years later, I worry not only about the experience of the earthquake itself, but about the aftermath in an age where nothing is regulated and government has been gutted. It brings to mind the anguish and helplessness I felt after Katrina, but also the horror of knowing it could be MY loved ones trying to survive the aftermath.
Today is the anniversary. Twenty years since that fateful Monday.