After The Quake

ALL OVER LOS ANGELES LAST WEEK, YOU heard about the miraculous luck of people who happened not to be in bed at 4:31 Monday morning. In Encino, at the home of Alison and Marc Taylor, a young man who was tending their three dogs while they vacationed in Hawaii fell asleep Sunday night watching TV in the living room. The earthquake flipped him off the couch like a penny. Shaken but unhurt, he searched the house, and one of the first things he saw were the doors to the bedroom closet that had been knocked off their tracks and landed on his pillow.

In Tarzana, 73-year-old Norman Lee, a retired biochemist, had been having trouble sleeping and was reading at the kitchen table when he felt something akin to "a giant hand reaching down and shaking me." He dropped to the floor and crawled to the bedroom where his wife, Marjory, was clinging to the sheets. She was untouched, but an eight-foot-high wooden bookcase had toppled onto his side of the bed. Sometimes, he reflected later, "insomnia is good for your health."

Nine miles down in the indescribably complex geography of subsurface Los Angeles, the balance between compression and friction suddenly tipped, and a belt of rocks shifted cataclysmically. In an instant, the San Gabriel Mountains grew a foot or more. At a speed of two to three miles per second, shock waves radiated out and up, striking first and hardest in the San Fernando Valley. The epicenter, directly above the fault, was a nondescript neighborhood of garden apartments and shopping centers known as Northridge. Crossing under the Santa Monica Mountains, the shock waves brought down a section of Interstate 10, fifteen miles away. A few hours later, the road--often described as the busiest in the nation would have been filled with cars, but at 4:31 it was deserted. Away to the north, Clarence W. Dean, a Los Angeles police officer, must have been one of the first to die, as an overpass on the Antelope Valley Freeway collapsed just ahead of him. He rode his motorcycle right off the 40-foot drop and was dead or dying by the time the shock wave reached Las Vegas, sending gamblers diving under the tables.

THE NORTHRIDGE temblor was over in just 40 seconds; seismologists measured it at 6.6, not quite strong enough to be considered a "major" quake but more than strong enough for those who had to live through it. Some buildings kept swaying for some time afterward, and some people, obviously, are still shaking. "It was like a rumble from hell," said John Winans, 35, who with his wife, Josephine, was one of more than 100 who survived the collapse of the Northridge Meadows apartment complex in which 16 people died. "It felt like somebody body-slammed me onto my bed and then threw glass on me," said another resident, Joanna Killian. Other forces of nature can be as destructive--the cold weather in the Midwest and East caused 142 deaths last week, more than twice as many as died in Los Angeles--but few events are as unsettling as a great earthquake, in which the very ground one stands on seems to come alive with malevolence. "I just stood in my bedroom and screamed," Killian recalls. in a nearby apartment complex a family of five took shelter in a 6-foot-by-2-foot closet and were still there an hour later when the building manager came to coax them out. A neighbor, Tonie Parker, 9, said: "I thought it would be the last time I ever lived."

Like a great plague, the quake was an opportunist, singling out its favorite victims--unreinforced masonry buildings more than one story high. In that way, it fell hardest on lower-middle-class and immigrant neighborhoods, notably the blocks of lowrise apartments that have begun to replace the postwar tract houses with which the Valley was settled. To even things out a bit, the quake also toppled the chimneys above the fireplaces of tony communities like Brentwood and Santa Monica. And, irrespective of construction, anything standing on loose, sandy soil or fill was vulnerable. The Santa Monica Freeway collapsed where it crossed La Cienega--a boulevard named for the Spanish word for swamp.

Here are some of the things that were damaged in 40 seconds last Monday morning:

Wayne Gretzky's mansion in Sherman Oaks and actor Jerry Van Dyke's house in Toluca Lake, originally built by Bing Crosby in 1936--both almost destroyed--and portions of Frank Lloyd Wright's landmark Hollyhock House, dating from 1919.

More than 100 mobile homes, destroyed by propane-tank explosions and fires in three Valley trailer parks.

The studios of virtually every major American producer and distributor of pornographic videos, an industry that happened to locate itself almost directly atop the fault zone.

Hundreds of priceless 78s belonging to saxophonist Arnold Brilhart, who played with Artie Shaw's band. Brilhart, 89, and his 81-year-old wife, Virginia, survived the collapse of Northridge Meadows by taking shelter under a doorway and were rescued by firefighters an hour later.

About 20,000 bottles of wine, including some 1969 Romanee-Conti worth several thousand dollars a bottle, from the cellar of Piero Selvaggio's Santa Monica restaurant, Valentino's. (He still has 80,000 bottles left of what was considered one of the best collections in the country.) When he opened the door to the cellar Monday morning, he was pushed back by a waist-deep tide of wine. "Let's say that life has its ups and downs," said Selvaggio, whose home burned to the ground in the Malibu fire last fall.

There were still hours to go until sunrise. Tens of thousands of people huddle in parking lots and driveways, wearing whatever they were sleeping in or could grab (in Brilhart's case: plaid pajamas, two sports coats, mismatched shoes and his eyeglasses, with one lens missing). The ground was still alive with aftershocks, and the precariously balanced wreckage of their homes creaked and groaned and threatened further collapse with each tremor. The night was illuminated only by occasional fires, fed by broken gas mains, and the searchlights of circling helicopters; power was out over the entire city and beyond, in a cascade of outages that reached Alberta. Yet even as these instant refugees awaited the dawn, they feared it, preferring the cozy dark to the devastation they knew the light would reveal. With the light came the game of outwitting National Guardsmen trying to secure the wreckage. People became, in effect, looters of their own homes. Virginia Brilhart slipped back into her building and emerged with a pair of trousers for her husband and a jeweled pin in the shape of a saxophone. Joanna Killian sneaked back to her mother's apartment in Northridge Meadows, across the hall from her own, and rescued her purse. "She's my real hero," Bea Killian said. "A woman is not a woman without her purse."

Thrown back on their own resources, people coped as best they could, some better than others. Faith Litton, a 21-year-old waitress, bravely took her three young children to safety when the quake struck, but seemed at a loss for what to do next; the family subsisted for the rest of the day on a salvaged bag of Doritos. Thousands camped out in public parks or parking lots, proving Gov. Pete Wilson's astute observation that "the people who are suffering the most are the victims." Hayda Ramirez, a native of Nicaragua, planted herself along with her son, daughter-in-law and infant granddaughter in front of Birmingham High School, where she had been told the Red Cross would open a shelter. "I'm kind of used to trouble," she said softly. "I've been through war in my country. But now I have no idea what to do." Some took to their cars, heading for terra firma in Nevada or points beyond. "They just grabbed their things and told us they would get in touch with us later," said Mona Parker, comanager of a Northridge apartment complex. "I don't know whether this was their first earthquake, but it sure seemed like it to me."

On Monday, Los Angeles was in a state of suspended animation, enforced in part by a dusk-to-dawn curfew; when the sun rose Tuesday it began to stir, but just barely. Fifty armed National Guardsmen patrolled around Northridge Meadows, ready to repel any resident making a suicidal dash for his wedding pictures. Searchers found one more body in the wreckage, making a total of 16. Martha Quispe, a 35-year-old native of Peru, was not among them, but neither was she among the crowd of survivors with nothing better to do than gaze mournfully at the heap of rubble concealing their belongings. Quispe and her fiance, John Christiano, had narrowly escaped being crushed in the collapse and wriggled through the wreckage to a window, but her mother in Peru didn't know this yet. Thanks to CNN, a civic disaster in a place like Los Angeles can now cause virtually instantaneous worldwide consternation. Quispe's cousin Ana Rojas Radin was looking for her. "Martha's mom is calling me," she cried. "Where is everybody? We grew up with her in Peru and now we can't find her. How can they not know where she is?" She made her way to the Red Cross shelter at Birmingham High School, but officials there told her the policy was not to release the names of survivors for the first 48 hours after a disaster. "If she's alive, I'm going to kill her," Radin cried. "How could she not call me?"

POWER WAS STILL OUT IN MOST OF the Valley and many traffic lights were off, drivers edged up cautiously to intersections and waved one another across, behavior that signified to many residents that the city was still deep in shock. Felipe Gutierrez, 31, took grim satisfaction in the discovery that not even an earthquake could jolt his neighbors into honesty. Camped out at the Victory Recreation Center with a dozen or so relatives, he found milk for $8 a gallon at a nearby grocery. This reinforced his intention to return to Jalisco, Mexico, when he finishes his degree in hotel management, an idea he first had when he found himself downwind of Mount St. Helens during its 1980 eruption.

Of course, at times like this anyone with a cash register comes under suspicion--although there also were reports of stores that actually cut their prices last week, either out of benevolence or a desire to clear the shelves before the roof fell on them. But the great thing about America is that it's still possible to start in business with literally nothing. At nightfall, a Salvation Army van appeared in the park, and volunteers began handing out blankets and bottled water. The rule was one of each per family member, but then a skinny man in ragged jeans appeared with a tale of woe so rambling and long that the volunteer gave up trying to understand him and handed over a box full of water bottles and a stack of blankets. Within minutes the man was in business, offering blankets at $5 and water for $3. But the volunteers repossessed most of his stock before he could do too much damage to the good name of capitalism.

THE TRUE MAGNITUDE OF THE disaster that had befallen Los Angeles became apparent only gradually. The death toll grew slowly through he week, from Monday's 33 to Saturday's 55, mostly by counting in people who died of quake-induced natural causes, such as heart attacks. But the casualty losses rose on a much steeper curve. Unlike a fire or flood, an earthquake causes damage that may not be apparent from the air, or even a cursory inspection on the ground. Early reports of a round billion dollars in damage quickly grew to $7 billion, then $15 billion, peaking at Wilson's estimate of $30 billion Wednesday morning, a figure no doubt intended to catch the attention of President Clinton, who arrived that day for a tour and town meeting with local officials.

The upper estimates include a healthy multiplier for the imponderables of lost business, such as the movies that don't get made because Jeffrey Katzenberg is stuck in a traffic jam. But the hard losses alone were enormous--300 schools seriously damaged, 11 major roads blocked, thousands of small businesses in ruins. A study released Friday by two economists at nearby Chapman University estimated nearly $8 billion in direct physical damage. Half of that was assumed to represent damage to houses and their contents, but what was good news in The Wall Street Journal ("The insurance industry is expected to escape serious financial harm") was not so reassuring to the people whose property it was. Earthquake insurance is expensive, so most households don't have any; Kathie Geyer, who owns a cabinetmaking company, turned down a policy costing $5,000 a year on her Northridge home, which was valued at $650,000 before it rose and fell on its foundation Monday. And deductibles can run $10,000 or more, often calculated separately on the house and its contents, so even people with insurance may have to bear a large share of their loss out of their own pockets.

Of course, there's also federal disaster assistance to fall back on. Clinton reassured Angelenos that the rest of the country would not desert them in this tragedy, and in fact HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros set up office in Los Angeles to work on relief efforts and was still there by the weekend. But the day Clinton came was also the first day many Angelenos tried to get back to work, and confronted in full hideous detail the limits of governmental power. Commutes that once were a manageable hour-and-a-half now started long before dawn and ended too late to call New York before lunchtime. Like a foraging army, drivers by the tens and hundreds of thousands descended on peaceful residential boulevards in search of routes around the blocked freeways. The fledgling public transit system suddenly found itself awash in passengers. The Metrolink Santa Clarita line, which had been carrying about 1,000 commuters a day since it opened in 1992, packed in 8,000 riders on Wednesday. But the Antelope Valley Freeway, which served the same area until part of it collapsed in the quake, normally carries more than 127,000 cars a day. And this is one problem that money can't really cure. Rebuilding the freeways will take a year or more even if they're paved with hundred-dollar bills.

MONEY CAN HELP MORE QUICKLY in the region's other critical need, housing. There are plenty of vacant apartments still standing, but people who've lost their furniture, car and bankbooks can't take advantage of them. But the demand for disaster help overwhelmed federal officials. The 12 relief centers opened by the Federal Emergency Management Agency were swamped with applicants, who were not pleased to discover that after hours in line all they got was a bundle of paperwork and another appointment as much as a month off. On Friday, the day after a woman fainted on line at the FEMA center in Northridge and was personally revived by Wilson, nearly 800 people were lined up in the heat of midday, besieging a relief worker who urged them to try another office due to open in Sherman Oaks. "You sleep in my car, I go in your house!" one man shouted. With weekend rain approaching, National Guard troops began frantically throwing up tents to house most of the estimated 14,000 people in temporary shelters or camped out in parks. One crude encampment was cleared, with more evacuations of the homeless to come. But where would they go?

And all this took place to a steady drumbeat of aftershocks, roiling the mountains, sending dust billowing into the sky and nerve-racked Angelenos rushing out into the streets. The quake revived an old joke about Los Angeles's four seasons: earthquake, fire, flood and drought. Southern Californians have indeed seen a lot of weather in the last few years, along with what appeared to be an alternating civic calendar of trials and riots. But they have endured, and will endure. As always, anyone who longed for winter was welcome to depart for Chicago. "What are we going to do?" sniffled Bea Killian, left homeless, along with her daughter Joanna, by the wreck of Northridge Meadows. "They won't tell us where we should go. Maybe we can go live in Hawaii with my other daughter."

That's right, Joanna responded. We'll be just in time for the next hurricane.

You can't earthquake-proof your house completely, but there are many ways to make it safer:

Fasten water heater to wall

Keep wrench wired to gas valve and know how to use it

Brace chimney

Put latches, like those used for baby-proofing, on all cabinet doors

Secure appliances and other large household items with heavy-duty brackets

Move beds away from windows or from beneath fans


Ventura County: 6,000 residences damaged. 1,000 uninhabitable. 250 businesses closed.

A police motorcycle officer died in a fall off a collapsed roadway.

Granada Hills: Kaiser Permanente Medical Center was destroyed.

Sylmar: 70 homes destroyed by fires from gas leaks.

San Fernando: Oil line exploded. 63 buildings destroyed. 835 damaged.

Northridge--Epicenter: 16 people died when the Northridge Meadows apartment complex collapsed.

Calabasas: 12 residences declared unsafe.

Burbank: 37 structures declared unsafe.

Glendale: 31 structures decared unsafe.

Pasadena: Several apartment complexes condemned.

Sherman Oaks: Buildings collapsed. Fires.

Hollywood: At least 50 buildings were destroyed.

Beverly Hills: Stored damaged on Rodeo Drive.

Santa Monica: Out of more than 1,600 buildings inspectedm 560 were badly damaged.

South L.A.: Many homes, churces and schools were badly damaged.

Los Angeles: Across the city, 4,500 apartments and houses were declared uninhabitable by the end of last week. School district officials estimated building damage at $700 million. ..MR0-


1986-1993: A seven-year statewide drought reduces farm acreage, kills fish and wildlife and hinders development. It ends in early 1993 with severe winter storms that destroy more than 50 houses and kill 13. ..MR0-


1993: Southern California brush fires rage over 200,000 acres, destroying more than 800 homes.

1994: Northridge quake in the San Fernando Valley. Damage estimates run to $30 billion. ..MR0-

Join the Discussion