This Is How We Deal with Earthquakes: Living and Having a Life
By Joe Dungan
Apr 6, 2007
Wednesday morning, an earthquake measuring 3.4 on the Richter Scale hit us. It was centered under the San Gabriel Mountains, near a little hamlet called Monrovia. There were no reports of damage or injuries, as the saying goes. And since it was only 3.4, chances are pretty good that no one even felt it. There was one thing about it, however, that resonated with the relatively few of us who heard the news.
It happened at 4:30 a.m.
People who’ve lived here long enough can tell you what 4:30 a.m. means in earthquake parlance. That’s what time it was when the Northridge earthquake hit. (Okay, technically, it was 4:31 a.m.) Such a reaction is one of the signs of being a true Angeleno. Yes, you may know how to text message someone while driving, and you may begin practicing aloofness and isolation while complaining about how hard it is to make friends here, but you haven’t been indoctrinated until you’ve lived through an earthquake big enough to get national news coverage. For many of us, our earthquake cherry was popped by the Northridge earthquake on January 17, 1994.
When it hit, most of us were sound asleep, but we have never forgotten what it was like and what happened to our property: We shook like hell and our homes became big fuckin’ messes. That’s what it was like. With the exception of the small percentage of buildings that partially collapsed and the small percentage of people who got injured, there weren’t many variations on these stories. Same with the stories about how people woke up ten minutes before it happened or how their kitty cat was running in circles and humping the Venetian blinds the night before. I can’t speak for others, but I got tired of hearing them after about three days. My favorite story was from a family friend in the west valley, a woman who lived only about ten miles from the epicenter. When we spoke to her not long after phone service was restored, she told us that she “thought she felt something” that morning, and noticed that a few knick-knacks had fallen over. That was a great story. Not because it was exciting, but because it was unique.
Worse than the clichéd stories were the bullshit ones. I honestly believe that some people mistook the Northridge earthquake for the Tet Offensive. If they weren’t showing off a cut on their finger or some other crippling injury, they bragged about how close they were to the collapsed this or the burned-out that. At the time, I worked with a guy who liked to tell people how close he lived to the epicenter. On a few occasions, I’d hear him on the phone, saying to some poor schmuck, “We were four blocks from the epicenter.” The man lived two miles from the epicenter, for God’s sake.
Then there were the overreactions. The suddenness and awesome force of these things have the power to scare so much crap out of people that some residents got in their cars and drove the hell away. A good number of others used the opportunity to stock up on earthquake supplies and Velcro all their belongings to the floor. This activity was at its highest right after the quake hit, that is, right after years of built-up pressure between tectonic plates had just been released. In other words, people took extreme measures of caution and preparedness at a time when the chances of a major quake hitting were at their absolute lowest.
The Northridge earthquake taught us all a few terms. “Red-tagged” was what we called houses and apartment buildings that were so damaged that the city refused to let residents back in. Everyone knew someone who lived in a building that got red-tagged. For a while after the earthquake, there was a disease called “valley fever.” The shaking of the ground kicked up heretofore un-kicked dust that included a fungus that, when inhaled, could cause symptoms resembling the flu and lead to meningitis and even death. The disease had existed before, but no one had ever heard of it. And no one can explain why wind gusts before or since never seem to kick up the valley fever fungus. The 1994 earthquake also bore a phrase that has mysteriously become an overused term not just in earthquake conversation, but in testimonies about other natural disasters too: flying television. Whether it’s an earthquake here or a twister in Indiana or a tornado in Florida, everybody gets hit by flying televisions. To this day, nothing else flies during natural disasters. Not remote controls, not books, not cans of tomato paste. Just televisions.
This being showbiz, even the earthquakes get makeovers. The epicenter of the Northridge earthquake was just west of Reseda Boulevard, between Saticoy Street and Roscoe Boulevard. This, of course, would put the epicenter in Reseda. But someone decided that “the Reseda earthquake” didn’t have the same ring, and the fake name stuck. The spin doctoring didn’t surprise me. What surprised me was that it wasn’t the first time we’d done this. The Sylmar earthquake of 1971 had its epicenter about eight miles to the north-northeast, near Sand Canyon, an outlying rural burg in another valley entirely. But “the Sand Canyon earthquake” doesn’t sound so menacing. It sounds more like a children’s story.
Earthquakes are the only things left in Los Angeles that are both incredibly obvious and zero percent bullshit. But that didn’t stop one local news outlet from deciding that we needed even more evidence after the fact. Not long after the Northridge earthquake, the news brainiacs at the NBC affiliate here came up with something revolutionary in earthquake coverage. It’s called the “Seismo-cam.” It consists of a video camera pointed at a seismograph. Whenever an earthquake hits, they’re eager to show videotape of the seismograph needle jerking back and forth. It’s even more exciting on their Web site. Any time you want, you can click on their Seismo-cam window, where you will be treated to a regularly updated Web stream of a straight line.
Since the terror of the event keeps fading in reflection, we’ve developed a cavalier attitude towards the inevitable next “big one.” In fact, some of us are all but praying for it as soon as possible. We know from 1994 that when a big one hits, a small but substantial percentage of the city clinically freaks out and leaves permanently, and another percentage of would-be transplants is instantly dissuaded from moving here. This reduced demand for housing far outweighs the drop in supply caused by red-tagging, thus driving housing prices down. Show me someone who thinks this is a sign of misplaced priorities, and I’ll show you someone who isn’t faced with the reality of paying $1,545 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in a decent neighborhood.
We’re periodically reminded about the importance of earthquake preparedness. Like all messages we hear on a regular basis, we kind of ignore them. I’d guess the average Los Angeles resident has enough water stored to last them two days. However, no matter how unsure we are about the severity of the next big one, Hurricane Katrina made us quite certain about our government’s inability to give a shit about us. That was a motivator for some of us to load up on a helluva lot of food and water. Like with any person with an excess of food and water, the urge to be generous takes over. I’ve had a few friends invite me to walk or ride a bike over to their houses (downed power lines will have closed all the streets) for food and water when the next big one hits. But they don’t make it sound like a chance to huddle together to save each other’s lives and boost morale when our city becomes an apocalyptic scrap heap. They make it sound like a chance to catch up.
Thus completes the circle of the earthquake deflowered. The importance of being alive inevitably shines a spotlight on the importance of having a life. Like with all the other days, Wednesday so filled us with our other priorities that there was little place for trifles like news items about a minor earthquake in the mountains behind a remote suburb.
Besides, we don’t need any more reminders that the big one is coming.
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