NORTHRIDGE BY NUMBERS or dial 018 for Orkney

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 but incredibly lucid, being woken up like that first thing in the morning is a little disturbing, earth shattering, I guess. 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 alone, it was all just me, no-one else, 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, wide-eyed, from their homes, as we huddled for comfort in small groups, listening to car-radios for news. “What a shock! I’m sure you all felt that one,” exclaimed a radio announcer. There was no telling how bad things were in the rest of the city, but luckily an emergency radio station had gone on air. Information is of vital importance in any emergency and an 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 in Venice Beach, it’s still 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. Elsewhere there was an undeclared truce — the sounds normally associated with gang related crime, the small arms fire and Salsa music had mysteriously stopped as the daily gun battles on the Venice Boardwalk between the Bloods and the Crips became the least of our worries. Of course, the city-wide curfew had a lot to do with the strange peace, as too did a bowel churning, gut wrenching fear of another “Big One”.

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 going to be on our own. A remarkable semblance of order emerged —the National Guard were 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 another big shock came at 7 am. I was foolishly back inside, in the bathroom peeing, and something just snapped, my legs got wobbly, there was no firm ground. The stupidity got even stupider, a week later, clearly in denial and stranded without a ticket home, I’m in Northridge applying for a simple job, when four aftershocks measuring between 4 and 5 on the Richter scale arrive in waves of energy that continued to cause damage and disruption in our lives for at least a month.

In between rushing outside and back indoors again several times, in a weird Buster Keaton, Keystone Cops movie, the job interviewer persists in interviewing me in the face of death. Look I really need this job, I need money to get home. At the time seismologists were predicting at least a year of sporadic aftershocks along the same fault line and from the same event. Quakes are named after their epicenters, and North Ridge, positioned in the heart of a densely populated area known as The Valley, came as a complete surprise.

“<Q> 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.
<Q> (not that SoCal folks are the ones suffering most now)
<SW> 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, overnight, is the good bit. It’s like actually meeting 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 pop-psychologists to turn this all into yet another audience hooked on group therapy watching people doing group therapy, the entire city was stricken by a deep sense of fear, denial and bravado.

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.

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 in Cape Town 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?
<sjk> I have relatives (inlaws) in a town called Himeji. Any news from there?
<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 until then in the country’s history, with AT&T logging 204.7 million calls on the big day, as opposed to the daily average of 175 million, before the network shut down, unable to cope with the volume. Connection with the outside world was severed. My life-line was torn, and unable to make another call, my plans were put on hold.

Somehow, I decided to stick it out, stay put, get some sleep. Big mistake — taking my mind off a 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 began to take its toll. By 9am I guess you could say my nerves were basically shot.

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 the 2004 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 of this gut wrenching trauma seems 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 the Gaia could talk maybe she would say something like: Folks — forget about your MTV and your Soaps, there are more important things to consider, like Krakatoa, a volcano which blew with a force of a hundred atom bombs; and what about Global Warming and the Polar Ice Caps melting?