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.