Northridge by Numbers – the Haiti overture

EARLY morning, 4.31 am. An Earthquake measuring 6.7 on the Richter Scale hits Los Angeles. It is Monday, January 17, 1994 I am asleep, safe in bed and know absolutely nothing about Earthquakes. When the first shockwave hit, I am catapulted out of bed. There were two pulses to begin with — the first strong enough to bring down the Santa Monica Freeway, the second sufficiently violent to knock out the city’s electricity supply.

I was dazed, waking up out of bed and on the floor as if the earth had suddenly shifted South, or the apartment had been hit by a jumbo. A little disturbing. There was a sense of adrenaline, excitement, questioning. Why now, why me, is this the end of the world? All I could hear were car sirens, a few gas explosions, the ground rocking back and forth like jelly as waves from the Pacific Ocean crashed back onto Venice Beach . For a brief short while, I was totally alone, I panicked. Then I remembered the drill: “switch off the gas!” The rush to prevent the hazard of fire and live electrical cables, brought a surge of renewed energy and alertness.

Outside, our neighbours on Horizon Avenue, had begun to emerge like an army of zombies, wide-eyed and confused. I searched for my neighbour, film-maker Jeremy Handler, who was still bunkered down, huddled under a bed. Outside we gathered for comfort in small groups, listening to a car-radio for news. “What a shock! I’m sure you all felt that one,” exclaimed a radio announcer in disbelief. There was no telling how bad things were in the rest of the city. Luckily an emergency radio station had gone on air. Information is of vital importance in any disaster and the all station link-up is tested every day, and is a fact of life in Southern California like the noon gun in Cape Town.

Back on Venice Beach, it’s pitch black, no electricity and eerily quiet. No sound of humming air conditioners, buzzing street lights or music, and then, gradually, bit by bit, everyone is irrevocably talking and chatting to each other, in a city of 12 million faceless people. That morning I got to meet my Latino neighbours for the very first time.

As dawn broke, we waited for more news. United States Federal Government intervention would come much later on in the day, but for at least 12 hours we were on our own. Eventually a semblance of order emerged —the National Guard would be sent in, taking control of the streets, to enforce a curfew, as a type of martial law took over for the duration of a period that was more traumatic than the initial shock. The thing about quakes is that they are geological events measured in periods of time greater than our human scale. As far as the North Ridge quake was concerned, the fault-line was still brewing, churning, moving, and so without any warning another big shock came at 7 am. Aftershocks measuring between 4 and 5 on the Richter scale would suddenly arrive in waves of energy that continued to cause damage and disruption in our lives for the week and then for at least a month. At the time seismologists were predicting at a year of sporadic aftershocks along the same fault line and from the same event.

Quakes are named after their epicentres, and North Ridge, positioned in the heart of a densely populated area known as The Valley, came as a complete surprise.

” One of my friends who lost her home in the NR quake decided
yesterday to bail out of Cali because the Kobe footage freaked her out
so badly. It’s still vivid after a year.
(not that SoCal folks are the ones suffering most now)
be back in a bit
*** SW has left channel #kobe”
[Extracted from a private log, taken from an Internet Relay Channel, on
the day Kobe was hit.}

Turning from a complete novice into a ragged veteran with knowledge of what a quake does, in the space of a few hours, is the good bit. It’s like actually getting eaten by the beast in that horror fliek you paid five bucks to see at a small town cinema. Still, no-one actually talked about The Quake — avoiding the implications of questions like: “Are you okay?” and meaningless replies like” Yes I’m fine, how are you?” and despite attempts by some of Hollywood’s finest pop-psychologists to turn all this into yet another audience hooked on group therapy, the entire city was stricken by a deep sense of fear, denial and occasional bravado. The bad part of Earthquakes: not being able to talk about The Big One.

That’s right, no actual talk shows about quakes; no predictions about the severity of the aftershocks, except for an unemotional and steady stream of information, a running commentary on how to stay alive while living in a sea of tremors — where to go for insurance claims; how to save your property; where to put your money, all followed by useless information on how to navigate your way past the broken freeway, or if you really have the guts, to ditch everything and dive off a cliff.

During the first few hours following the Quake, I had made a phone-call to South Africa. It went something like this: “Mom, there’s been an earthquake, but I’m alright.” On the other side, in a different timezone things were a lot different. My mother, fourteen hours away picks up the conversation casually, “How’s the weather, was there a Tidal Wave?” I reply: “No, mom, an earthquake, but I’m alright. I’ve got to go, bye now.” Instead of evacuating or making plans for departure and fleeing the real possibility of another disaster, people turned to their telephones and the Internet.

“Setsuna; Does anyone know the current situation of Chuo-ku Kobe?
; I have relatives (inlaws) in a town called Himeji. Any news from
Jerremy galan: do you know where atsugi is in japan? North, south,
east, or west of kobe?” [Extract from Kobe IRC channel].

By the time I had finished the call, the American phone system had logged up the most amount of calls on any one day in the country’s history, with AT&T logging 204.7 million calls on the day, as opposed to the daily average back then, of 175 million. One of life’s strange news facts about the chaotic moments before the network shut down, unable to cope with the volume. Connection with the outside world was thus severed. My life-line was torn, and unable to make the call, my plans were put on hold. Somehow, I decided to stick it out, stay put, get some sleep. Doh! Big mistake — taking my mind off a live drama that was by no means over. Events proceeded apace and took on a life of their own and South Africa and life back home would soon seem like a distant memory. Exactly what is one supposed to do after an earthquake? Watch TV? Go to work? Carry on as if nothing has happened? The stress of waiting for an even Bigger One, began to take its toll. By 9am I guess you could say my nerves, like so many around me, were as frazzled as if a war had just broken out in the wiring that connects all the circuits inside my brain.

Looking at pictures of the Bam earthquake in Iran, a broken citedal and 50 000 dead, I realise that I am lucky to be alive. Watching survivors of an Asian Quake and the devastation caused by a powerful Tsunami screeching across the Indian Ocean, I am left in awe of the almighty Earth and its capacity to wreak havoc more deadly than wars and atomic bombs combined. Yet if one looks at it, all the gut wrenching trauma seems so predictable. The Kobe Quake happened exactly a year after Northridge. The rupture in Sumatra, a year to the day after Bam, one wonders, perhaps whether this planet isn’t trying to tell us something? If Gaia could talk maybe she would say something like: Folks — forget about your DSTV and your Soaps, there are more important things to consider, like Krakatoa, a volcano which blew up with a force of a hundred atom bombs; and now Haiti, the single greatest loss of life in living memory.

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