The earthquake? Just another day in paradise . . .

January 18, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

"I couldn't believe it," said my friend Mark, who was on the phone from Los Angeles. "A 6.6? That's all?"

Both his TV sets had crashed to the floor. So had the VCRs and most of the stereo equipment. Paintings had been ripped from the walls. A closet door in the baby's room had been blown off its hinges.

The post-quake decor in his house suggested early childhood. Everything was now on the floor, and much of it was broken.

"A 6.6?" he said. "That's very disappointing for those of us who were in it. I was thinking this had to be the Big One. If this isn't the Big One, I don't want to be anywhere near it when it comes."

He laughed.

The laugh was pure bravado. It was whistling past the graveyard. Which is what they do in L.A., where staring down the elements is the favorite local sport.

They love to talk about the Big One (an 8.0 or above on the Richter scale) as if it were some mythological beast poised in the hills, ready to pounce. They talk about it, as if talking about it loudly enough will somehow keep the Big One at bay.

As it turned out, this moderate quake seemed pretty big. You've seen the pictures. You've seen the death count.

"It was a sensation of rocking violently back and forth," said Mark, who lives in the San Fernando Valley, near the epicenter. "I don't know how long it lasted. Maybe 15 seconds. Maybe 30. I've got a ceiling fan right above the bed. I've just got this picture in my head of this thing swinging wildly."

Mark is pure Southern California, meaning he moved there from the East sometime back in the '70s and could never imagine living anywhere else again.

He is not, in principle, afraid of earthquakes. Californians are, by definition, not afraid of earthquakes.

I was in the press box at Candlestick Park in '89 when San Francisco had its most recent significant (7.1) quake. The ground shook. The stadium swayed. And as the out-of-towners cringed in horror, the locals smiled knowingly at one another. My seven years in L.A. put me with the locals, and then we saw the pictures of destruction.

In L.A., they like to say earthquakes are the price you pay for paradise. (Actually, that's just a down payment. You have to spend $500,000 minimum for a house on top of that.)

But what's happened to paradise?

This earthquake followed closely the fires of last fall. When the rains come, you can expect some houses to slide down hillsides. There will be the usual jokes about houses changing zip codes.

For me, that has always been the best thing about Southern California. All the people there know on some level that it's foolish to live where they do. But they insist on living there anyway.

That's changing now, but you can't blame the earthquake.

This time there's far more wrong in Los Angeles than an overheated assault by the elements.

The fires that really shook the area were courtesy of a riot. The economy is suffering through a major recession. Jobs are going away and not coming back. Not surprisingly, some people are going away, too.

For the first time in storybook land, the word dread is being heard. Dread is the antithesis of the California experience. Suddenly, everything that can go wrong in L.A. has gone wrong.

"Somebody's got it in for us," Mark said.

Mark isn't going anywhere, and not just because the value of his house has plummeted in the last year. He loves it there. He's got a good job and good life. Talk to him about earthquakes, and he asks you about snow.

But it's also true the earthquake isn't going to help anybody's confidence. Buildings that are supposed to be earthquake-proof collapsed, and people died. Three freeways collapsed as well. That wasn't supposed to happen either. All the big highways were reinforced after the '71 earthquake when a freeway overpass gave way and crumbled to the earth.

What happened this time?

And what would happen if -- well, when -- the Big One does come? What will be left standing?

As I talked to Mark, he was thinking about those questions. And he was thinking about life in L.A., too.

"You know, it's a beautiful day outside," he said. "If I were a little younger, I'd leave everything on the floor and just go lie out in the sun. Just to tell people I did it."

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