L.A. is gathering its grit in disaster's aftershock L.A. EARTHQUAKE -- AFTERSHOCK

January 23, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES -- The freeways are broken. The water in some places remains undrinkable. And the city parks have been transformed into tent cities.

This is the look of paradise lost, a California dream turned nightmare.

In the wake of Monday morning's earthquake, a city and region have been forced to confront their mortality.

Can a place built on sun, hopes and fault lines ever be the same again?


At 4:31 a.m. Monday, the ground shook with stunning violence for 10 seconds. It was an earthquake that registered 6.6 on the Richter scale, a jolt so powerful that a swath of destruction was cut from the epicenter in Northridge, in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, up through the Santa Clarita Valley and then 20 miles south through Hollywood to downtown Los Angeles.

This wasn't the Big One, but it was close.

And as the aftershocks roll through the region, the millions of survivors are beginning to come to grips with a future that may no longer be as bright or as beautiful as the old California dream of endless, sun-drenched opportunity.

"We will rebuild the freeways so they can fall down again," said Michael Davis, an urban studies professor at the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

"We will finally have more cops," he added. "And people will continue to flee Southern California."

It is a downbeat assessment matched by the alarming devastation. All power was temporarily lost. All water was stopped. Parts of eight freeways, the concrete lifelines that pulse through the region, were severed.

Fifty-five people died. More than 2,000 were injured. Damage estimates ranged from $15 billion to $30 billion.

The earthquake damage was heaped upon the all-too-familiar ills that have plagued L.A. in the past two years.

The riot after the first verdict in the Rodney G. King police beating case.

Fires in Malibu.

The economic bust triggered by the collapse of the defense industry.

The housing crash.

"Welcome to L.A., the land of earth, wind and fire," said Jackie Goldberg, a City Council member and lifelong Los Angelino.

There has always been a hard edge around the laid-back Southern California lifestyle. Nearly 9 million people are packed together along mountains and valleys that hug the Pacific and give L.A. its shape.

The fantasy of filmmaking and the beauty of Beverly Hills mansions obscure the neighborhoods where the tenements are covered in graffiti and the residents are cloaked with fear.

Nearly two years after the riots, the empty lots of South Central remain a symbol of a city burdened by failed economic promises and racial and ethnic divides.

Ah, but the weather is beautiful, even if the ground shakes.

"We expect earthquakes in Southern California," Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray wrote. "They come with the geraniums."

But this earthquake has altered the expectations.

It was big. And it was terrifying.

'What's next, locusts?'

To be sure, there are marvelous stories of heroism and hope amid the ruin.

Bernice Refkin, 82, pressing a homemade afghan against her chest, sitting in her new home on a cot inside the Granada Hills High School gymnasium, recalled how she cracked open a door with a bridge table, crawled down two flights of steps, and survived an earthquake.

"Something in tragedy," she said. "You do things without thinking."

Salvador Pena, a janitor who earns $6 an hour, lay buried for seven hours inside the Northridge Fashion Center parking lot, until rescued by dozens of firefighters and paramedics who drilled holes through concrete and moved mountains of rubble. "Come down and pray with me," Mr. Pena told one of his rescuers in Spanish. "Come down and pray with me."

And Piero Selvaggio, seeing a river of red gushing from his Santa Monica restaurant, Valentino's, discovered that nearly a third of his 100,000-bottle wine cellar was crushed.

"What's next, locusts?" said Mr. Selvaggio, whose home was destroyed in the Malibu fires 2 1/2 months ago.

Mr. Selvaggio wept when he saw his broken wine bottles.

But he will not leave.

"I am an immigrant from Sicily," he said. "I will start over."

The hope for L.A. is that others will follow Mr. Selvaggio's lead.

Yet the region faces tough times.

Mr. Davis said there are two views of how the earthquake will ultimately affect the area.

"There is the camp that believes that the earthquake showed us the best possible side of L.A., of neighbors coming together to help each other," Mr. Davis said.

"This camp even sees a silver lining in the collapse of the freeways, that this is the best incentive for people to try on the mass transit option."

And how does the other camp view the earthquake?

OC "That this is another nail in the coffin of the city," he said.

Unity and hope

More than 20,000 residents took shelter in cars and tents in the city's parks. Other tenants were simply tossed into the streets by landlords who abandoned cracked buildings.

And the closure of the freeways created a rush hour from hell, turning 30-minute commutes into three-hour tests of endurance.

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