17 January 2014 @ 09:30 am
20 years ago  
Twenty years ago today, the Northridge quake ripped apart big swathes of San Fernando Valley. We felt it all the way down here; I knew it was a big one somewhere else because, in spite of the entire building swaying horribly, and books gouting out of bookshelves, there was no noise. That meant the epicenter was not close.

We didn't lose power. Adrenaline made it impossible to go back to sleep (I am always afraid an even bigger one is coming next) so I went downstairs to turn on the TV. Most of the local channels had gone dead, except for one. A scruffy-looking engineer sheepishly came on in front of the camera to talk semi-coherently about what he'd felt. He'd been on duty running tapes of old stuff. Not everybody had cell phones then; all he could talk about was how very dark everything was, as all the lights were out.

I kept watching him because I discovered that when an aftershock hit him, about eight seconds later it hit us. Nothing about earthquakes is pleasant, but having a bit of warning means one can brace for it. So I kept the TV on, watching as this guy talked about what he could discover, at first one person at a time (co workers showing up having driven cautiously as no traffic lights worked) and reporting bits of debris but no big damage, so far.

When dawn at last revealed the extent of the damage, it was fascinating to watch how word went out, how news of emergency teams were deployed. Around seven, a sharp quake hit suddenly, scaring us all--it was the second one, centering somewhere up around Joshua Tree, as I recall.

When I could, I checked in with family and friends; my best bud, Dave Trowbridge, had already taken an emotional hit the day before when his first wife abruptly moved out. He was home alone as a single man again when the quake hit, and he lost all power. So he sat reading, and wrote this poem which still gives me shivers.
( 47 comments — Leave a comment )
Queen of the Skiesqueenoftheskies on January 17th, 2014 06:23 pm (UTC)
That was a scary one. I was thankful not to live in the San Fernando Valley when it struck. When I first moved out here, I'd almost moved into the apartment building on Reseda that collapsed in the quake.

Makes one very thankful.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on January 17th, 2014 06:29 pm (UTC)
That is a scary thought!
padawansguidepadawansguide on January 17th, 2014 07:52 pm (UTC)
How terrible! As an East Coaster, it's hard to imagine. We have plenty of natural disasters out here, but other than the one 2 years ago (from which the Washington Monument is still being repaired), earthquakes are rather foreign to us.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on January 17th, 2014 08:08 pm (UTC)
I still worry bout them when I'm out there. (Brick buildings, gaaah!)
padawansguidepadawansguide on January 17th, 2014 08:24 pm (UTC)
We are so not earthquake proof here!

But you obviously get them worse in CA!
serialbabbler on January 17th, 2014 08:27 pm (UTC)
Brick buildings stand up pretty well to tornadoes, though. :D (At least the older ones do... as long as it isn't a really big tornado.)

Here in Michigan I've felt maybe three earthquakes in my life and all of them were of the "things are swaying oddly" variety rather than the "things are falling apart and I'm afraid they are going to land on my head" type. Supposedly the biggest one recorded was a 4.6 magnitude in 1947.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on January 17th, 2014 08:30 pm (UTC)
A four is light around here, but it can be significant in stone buildings. There was a four when I was in Vienna, Austria (first one in years, cementing my fear that wherever I went, they would follow). It was terrifying, five stories up in a stone building. The walls cracked, though nothing came down--they were still repairing damage three years later. That sound of stones grinding together, I still can remember the terror.
serialbabbler on January 17th, 2014 09:29 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I'd hate to see what would happen to the mid-west if the New Madrid seismic zone started to get more active. We definitely don't build with that type of disaster in mind.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on January 17th, 2014 09:41 pm (UTC)
Gosh yes--that is a significant fault line.
gwynnega: coffee poisoninjestgwynnega on January 17th, 2014 08:21 pm (UTC)
I was living in Hermosa Beach at the time, and it was still quite powerful down there. My parents in Sherman Oaks lost power for days.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on January 17th, 2014 08:23 pm (UTC)
Oh, yeah, I'm not surprised re Hermosa. That's farther north than we are.
Ulrikaakirlu on January 17th, 2014 08:34 pm (UTC)
It woke me, too, living in Irvine as I was at the time. I could tell the epicenter was far, just from the way the quake moved, which meant it had to be really big to travel so far. The strong, side to side swaying motion was very reminiscent of being on an impossibly huge railway car.

1994 was right in the middle of my 20-odd year break from having a TV in the house so I didn't see very much coverage but had/have many friends living in the San Fernando Valley who were affected. Luckily no one who was hurt, or trapped, but a lot of beloved breakables surely were broken.

I remember driving by one of the parking garages at CSUN months later, and being shocked by the way the concrete support pillars had just folded over sideways in the direction of the wave. I had known intellectually that concrete takes years to completely cure, but seeing these massive pillars curving over like leather-hard clay was really striking.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on January 17th, 2014 08:42 pm (UTC)
Oh, yes.
Princess Strokenhamfiveandfour on January 17th, 2014 09:53 pm (UTC)
I was *just* reading about this earthquake from the insurance perspective. I think it's a bit scary that only 12% of Californians purchase Earthquake insurance. (On the other hand, as someone seeking Earthquake cover for California locations from time to time, I can attest to how difficult it can be to even find coverage, much less afford it.)

The Northridge quake was the largest ever recorded in an urban environment in the US and caused the largest financial loss (a quake of similar magnitude today is estimated to cause more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina - Katrina tallied at $148 billion in losses).

I'm in the Pacific Northwest and have experienced a few minor earthquakes - and the minor ones have been enough for me! One of them seemed to go on and on (I was reminded of the phenomenon from watching video of the quake off the coast of Japan) and it's hard to explain just how much it throws off the equilibrium when the ground is rockin' and rollin'.

A friend of mine had just moved to that area a few months before the Northridge Earthquake and I remember talking to her about her experience of it plus the damage it caused to the house where she lived. I'm having a hard time believing that was 20 years ago!
Swan Towerswan_tower on January 17th, 2014 10:09 pm (UTC)
The problem with earthquake insurance is, it doesn't work very well. :-P Which is to say, unlike most forms of insurance -- where the company can be fairly confident of paying out only to a small percentage of its subscribers at any one time -- earthquakes tend to be all-or-nothing. There isn't so much of a shared pool of risk; nobody needs it, until everybody needs it.

I suspect the only way to make insurance for that kind of disaster more available and less expensive would be to pool it over a huge area. If companies covered the whole Ring of Fire, for example, they'd have a lot of clients with enough earthquake risk to bother insuring, but the odds of Tokyo and San Francisco having big quakes at the same time would be much lower.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on January 17th, 2014 10:15 pm (UTC)
Yeah--we have never been able to afford earthquake insurance. Our bookcases are bolted to the walls, the good china is in a low buffet, and our furniture is old and falling apart, so mainly I worry about kitchen damage and the roof falling on our heads.
Princess Strokenhamfiveandfour on January 17th, 2014 10:43 pm (UTC)
Well, that pooling over a large area does happen at a global level from the insurance (and reinsurance) company point of view.

Your comment does strike me as hitting on a theme I hear from insurance buyers from time-to-time: some people think of insurance as the thing that can keep them from complete financial ruin should something devastating happen and so they buy for only specific perils like Earthquake and use larger deductibles and don't submit borderline claims so as to make their premiums as low as possible, while others think of it as a kind of bank where money in should equal money out and they aren't shy about having small deductibles and submitting claims.

At the level of the individual purchaser*, though, the logic of those in quake-prone areas against buying quake insurance is more along the lines of 1) coverage is expensive, 2) disastrous earthquakes are relatively rare within the context of any one individual's lifespan, 3) the deductibles are high, and 4) mortgage companies don't require earthquake cover for structures in quake-prone areas like they require flood cover for structures in flood-prone areas.

Though reason #1 can be taken out of the equation for people who don't reside in quake-prone areas, they can substitute instead the fact that they are at a really small risk of suffering severe financial consequences, so it doesn't make sense to buy insurance for it.

All these factors (plus several others) add up to mean there's a relatively modest take up rate for buying Earthquake coverage, so the premiums for those who do buy it are higher than they would be if more people were contributing to the claim-paying pot.

*These are comments I've heard over the years...could be there are also lots of other reasons in people's minds.
Zeborah: NZzeborahnz on January 17th, 2014 11:27 pm (UTC)
New Zealand has nationalised earthquake insurance for owners of residential buildings. (I think you don't have it unless you buy some home insurance. However banks won't give you a mortgage unless you have insurance so most people do.) Of course because of this high insurance coverage, our 2010-2011 earthquakes were one of the (or possibly even the, but I can't find a citation) biggest insurance events in the world and, by the time all the claims get settled, will have put the fund it's based on well and truly into the red.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on January 17th, 2014 11:49 pm (UTC)
Oh, yes. Those were terrible--I am not surprised the insurance industry is hurting over the damages.
Princess Strokenhamfiveandfour on January 18th, 2014 12:43 am (UTC)
Yes, we face a similar issue with our Flood insurance program in the United States. It's a constant battle between making insurance affordable for those who live in flood-prone areas vs. taking in enough money to fund the program. (It's pretty much always teetering on bankruptcy and of course no one in politics has the guts to stand up and say, "Does it make any sense to let people build homes in areas that have a good chance of flooding, then have the government pick up the tab when a flood happens?")

The relatively good news when it comes to earthquakes is that they are usually a lot less frequent than other types of natural disasters (and less prone to coming on due to humans meddling with the landscape, though this could be changing due to things like frakking activities), so theoretically the fund should be able to get built back up before the next big one strikes. Hopefully that recent spate of quakes in New Zealand will make for several decades before the next one strikes.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on January 17th, 2014 10:18 pm (UTC)
I worry about friends in Seattle--that is a very, very dangerous fault.

We can't afford quake insurance, as I explained to Swan Tower. The only ones who can are the rich, who of course can more easily recover.

But our furniture is old junk, our bookcases are bolted to the walls, so I hope mostly that the roof doesn't fall on my head of one hits.
Princess Strokenhamfiveandfour on January 17th, 2014 10:59 pm (UTC)
Yes, there is a lot of new information coming out about the potential for devastating quakes in the Pacific Northwest. It's especially scary because very few buildings here have been built in ways to help them withstand big events. (Plus it means for us that Earthquake insurance is moving towards more "California-like" rates and restrictions.)

Personally, I think buying insurance should be just one part of anyone's over-all Risk Management plan - so thinking ahead and doing things like fixing your property so it's less prone to damage is exactly the right tack to take. Who wouldn't rather prevent a loss than suffer one then have to deal with the consequences?

You might just inquire from time-to-time about the cost of buying coverage for just your structure and having a higher deductible than normal (say 20%) as a way to make it more affordable. At the very least, it would mean insurance companies could recommend additional protections you can institute to make your property less susceptible to loss and/or you'd get updates on how insurance companies perceive the risk of quake for your specific area.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on January 17th, 2014 11:11 pm (UTC)
Yeah, well, household repairs also wait for disaster. We live with broken things, and make do, and every sudden car repair or broken tooth throws us right back in the red. The next disaster will probably be the leaking fridge, which will no doubt go out during the next heat wave. Such is life when pay doesn't equal the upward spiral in spending, plus being responsible for a lot of lives.
Princess Strokenhamfiveandfour on January 18th, 2014 12:49 am (UTC)
Yeah, I hear you. We kicked the year off with having to do an expensive car repair for something we weren't expecting, which of course means the repairs for things we were expecting will now have to wait.

But what can you do? You put your finger in the hole in front of you today and let tomorrow's hole worry about itself.

I saw this article earlier today and thought, "Yep. Makes sense".
Swan Tower: Maleficentswan_tower on January 17th, 2014 10:01 pm (UTC)
There is only one time in my life something has happened to me that I have no rational explanation for.

I rarely remember my dreams, but I remember the end of this one. I was holding in my hand a pendant I had recently given to my sister for her birthday: an obsidian arrowhead, wrapped in silver wire. As I was looking at it, everything shifted -- as if the world was suddenly two inches to the left. The arrowhead cracked in half in my hand, and bits started to flake off of it. The experience was unsettling enough that it woke me up; I rolled over, looked at the clock, realized it was way too early for me to get up, and went back to sleep.

When I finally got up later, I discovered that I had woken from that dream right when the earthquake hit.

I was living in Texas at the time.

I don't think it's possible for the tremors to have traveled that far, at least not on a level any human being could hope to detect. But I can't shake the conviction that my dream was caused by the earthquake; the symbolism and feel of it fit too well. To this day, it remains one of about five dreams I can remember with any clarity. (The others have all been equally unnerving, though in different ways.)
Sherwood Smithsartorias on January 17th, 2014 10:16 pm (UTC)
Wow that is very unnerving!
(Anonymous) on January 18th, 2014 05:00 am (UTC)
I had a spooky precognitive experience about the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco. I was at our local fun fair half a world away in Germany with friends and went into a fun house which also boosted an earthquake simulator. And while we were waiting in line and also inside the fun house, I kept talking about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 (even though there were much more recent terrible earthquakes like the ones in Armenia and Mexico City) all the time to the point that I annoyed my friends and pretty much everybody else unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity. On the way home, I heard on the radio that there had been an earthquake in San Francisco that very night, which was damn spooky in itself. But it gets even spookier, for at that point I still believed that the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 had been on my mind that night, because the San Francisco skyline had been painted on the outside of that fun house. However, when I went back to the fair a few days later and passed the fun house again, I noticed that the skyline was obviously that of New York.

I suspect that humans can sometimes subconsciously sense even tremors that should be too low-level to detect and that this causes precognitive events like the ones Swantower and I experienced.

Luckily, I live in an earthquake free region. We did have a 3.8 quake in my region in 2005, which was the worst in 100 years or so. I was maybe 15 kilometers or so from the epicentre and I remember that I was walking down the stairs when it happened. There was a really loud bang and the windows suddenly rattled. I also remember that I found sitting on the stairs, even though I had been walking a moment before, so I probably stumbled.

I initially thought it was some kind of explosion and looked out of the windows and the front door, but couldn't see anything. Then I suspected a jet breaking the sound barrier. I didn't learn that it was an earthquake until the next morning.

Sherwood Smithsartorias on January 18th, 2014 01:54 pm (UTC)
That is very freaky.

My grandmother used to know when they were coming. Sometimes she'd call my mom to warn her. I asked her once to please let us all know, but she shrugged and said, "Oh, don't fret, they won't do you no harm."

Sigh. I wish she'd passed down that extra sense.
asakiyume: Dunhuang Buddhaasakiyume on January 19th, 2014 06:06 am (UTC)
Strange things do happen in this world--what an amazing dream.
whswhs: pic#67542548whswhs on January 17th, 2014 11:26 pm (UTC)
Of course, when I feel tremors these days, I promptly go on line and search on "earthquake southern california." It comes on amazingly fast. On the other hand, it didn't work so well when we had the huge power outage. . . .
Sherwood Smithsartorias on January 17th, 2014 11:52 pm (UTC)
I have the usgs website bookmarked.
whswhswhswhs on January 17th, 2014 11:59 pm (UTC)
That sounds like a good idea. Especially for us at the borders of the North American and Pacific Plates.
pjthompsonpjthompson on January 17th, 2014 11:46 pm (UTC)
We lost power, but one of the advantages of living on the same grid as LAX is that we get top priority for restoration of power. It was back on by 7 a.m. We spent the rest of the day and part of the night glued to the TV.

We had no damage—a stack of books fell over on the floor—but just a couple of miles northeast of us was that section of collapsed freeway, and my friends in Santa Monica, 5-7 miles from us, took a huge hit, as did the place I work in Santa Monica. It was surreal how the damage hopscotched around the city and the valley.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on January 17th, 2014 11:51 pm (UTC)
Yeah, apparently there was a terrible reverberation of waves caused by the S.M. mountains, which made the shaking that much worse for S.M.
Zeborah: NZzeborahnz on January 17th, 2014 11:47 pm (UTC)
After our September quake, I huddled in a corner listening to the radio until dawn came. The morning after our February quake, exhausted from lack of sleep and the knowledge that my city, our whole civilisation, was destroyed, I wandered outside and there was an honest-to-god newspaper, delivered to our door just as if the Press building still existed and the roads could still be driven on.

People who do their jobs like that are absolute heroes in my book.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on January 17th, 2014 11:51 pm (UTC)
Oh, I agree.
thistle in greythistleingrey on January 18th, 2014 03:10 am (UTC)
Wow, the eight-second warning. Cool yet creepy.

I missed the Northridge quake by a day or two--end of winter break, time to return to college--but I remember the smaller 1987 Whittier quake with extreme clarity. "Only" 5.0....
Sherwood Smithsartorias on January 18th, 2014 04:03 am (UTC)
That was a sharp, nasty one.
Catholic Bibliophagistc_bibliophagist on January 18th, 2014 04:13 am (UTC)
I'd forgotten that today was the anniversary of the quake. We lived very, very close to Northridge so the kids spent the rest of the night in our bed while my husband read aloud to them from The Hobbit with a flashlight. He began it to distract them and to pass the time while we waited for dawn. And he continued reading it in the days that followed until it was done. It was a point of normalcy in an otherwise chaotic time.

Your post made me rummage around to find the old journal where I had all of the family members write entries about the quake in the days that followed. It was interesting to relive it from everyone's different viewpoints.

Sherwood Smithsartorias on January 18th, 2014 01:55 pm (UTC)
Oh, that would be interesting to read.
asakiyume: dewdropasakiyume on January 19th, 2014 06:08 am (UTC)
In Dave Trowbridge's poem, I was interested in the part about people being midpoint, in scale, on the spectrum of *stuff*, from subatomic particles to galaxies.

And how nice it would be to share your grandmother's assurance that an earthquake wouldn't hurt you!
Sherwood Smithsartorias on January 19th, 2014 02:38 pm (UTC)
Yes, and yes! (Though she didn't say that after the Northridge one. But she also moved away, so she was no longer in this area; I don't know if her ability to sense them was still operative, as they haven't had any big ones up Ventura way, at least while she was alive and in residence)
anna_wing on January 20th, 2014 04:11 am (UTC)
I was in Santiago de Chile in 1997, and temblors and earthquakes are common there. One evening my flatmate and I were watching the evening news, when a large-ish temblor hit. When the lights and everything came on again, and we came back into the sitting-room (from standing under the doorframes), the news came back on, with the newsreaders still in their chairs, as white as paper, with the studio in a mess behind them, and in darkness except for emergency lights. They were a lot closer to the epicentre than we were (it was somewhere in the hills, and we were down near the river), and ended up being their own breaking news.

Edited at 2014-01-20 04:11 am (UTC)
Sherwood Smithsartorias on January 20th, 2014 04:19 am (UTC)
Oh, yes. Chile is a very tectonically active area--but still I bet that was pretty terrifying for those newsreaders.
anna_wing on January 21st, 2014 05:29 am (UTC)
They looked it, but did their duty as members of the Fourth Estate.
the Lady Adeone of Lily Lake: Birthmarkedladyadeone on January 27th, 2014 08:36 am (UTC)
Thank you for this thoughtful insight into the past! It was a very interesting read - as was the poem!
Sherwood Smithsartorias on January 27th, 2014 01:31 pm (UTC)
I don't know about insight--sheer memory--but thanks!
( 47 comments — Leave a comment )