Deadly Wake-up Call in California

January 18, 1994

Marylanders shivering recently in bone-cold temperatures and sliding over treacherous icy roads looked with envy toward Southern California, basking in warm sunny weather. Then suddenly, a massive earthquake thundered through northern Los Angeles yesterday, toppling freeways and buildings, cutting power and water and phones, filling the early morning with fire and smoke and death. It was a grim reminder of the capricious power of nature in its different guises.

This quake was not "the big one" that is always on the minds of those who live over the most threatening geological faults in the country; it registered 6.6 on the Richter scale, weaker than the 7.5 Landers quake 19 months earlier. But this was exceptionally devastating because the earthquake cut through heavily populated areas in the San Fernando Valley; only the pre-dawn hour and a federal holiday that kept people at home contained the greater potential loss of life.

Californians typically affect a blase attitude toward the tremors and quakes that disrupt their lives; this was something unusually horrific. The valley-centered tremors shook buildings well over 100 miles away, from San Diego to Las Vegas. Ribbons of major freeways crumpled despite upgraded construction standards imposed after previous seismic disasters. More than 20 people died in the 30-second wave of terror and the aftershocks.

The president declared the region a disaster area, as federal emergency workers moved in. Insurance companies were also beginning to add up the toll. With so much recent experience in U.S. disasters, relief teams can be expected to respond quickly to the needs of these latest victims of nature's fury. Significant emergency funds will be needed, as in the cases of forest fires, the Los Angeles riots and the 1989 San Francisco Bay earthquake that killed 65 persons.

At the same time, the episode proves again that there are limits to the effectiveness of quake-proof construction. The 1971 San Fernando quake killed 65 persons, leading to adoption of tougher building and upgrade codes that undoubtedly helped to limit the magnitude of this destruction.

But if development continues to concentrate as it has in Southern California, the potential of future disasters remains high. If residents choose to live atop major tectonic faults in the earth, to take their chances for the enchantment of tempered climate and natural beauty, they can periodically expect to pay a surprising and grievous toll.

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