Northridge Earthquake: We All Have Stories

FIRST PERSON- “Northridge 20” – a UCLA symposium marking the 20th anniversary of the January 17, 1994 earthquake – will draw experts from the Structural Engineers Association of  Southern California, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Western States Seismic Policy Council, the California Earthquake Authority, the Los Angeles Tall Building Structural Design Council, and more. 

Expect detailed and extensive discussion on the disaster and everything that’s been done since to prepare for the next – presumably worse – calamity. 

I won’t be attending. 


I didn’t know anyone killed or injured in the 6.7 magnitude Northridge Earthquake but the so-called “medium one” was a game-changer for me. 

For one thing, it forced my then-wife, young kids and me to vacate our upstairs apartment on Sherbourne Drive, a mile north of the Santa Monica Freeway bridge collapse.  The building – 1930s “Spanish-Style” duplex – was rendered uninhabitable and ultimately “red-tagged.” 

As I wrote in a 2012 blog post, we had to move twice within six months, rang up considerable debt (despite a $2,700 FEMA relocation stipend) and began to buckle under the pressure.

In telling the story, I couldn’t resist earthquake imagery, noting “cracks” in the relationship and “fissures” in the marriage. 

In linking my separation and eventual status as a divorced dad to the quake, maybe I was looking for a way to connect to history.  Tell a bigger story than my own failures.  But whatever the role of Northridge in the direction of my life, there’s no doubt that the earthquake freaked me out. 

Before that day (I’d already lived in LA for 13 years), tremors and temblors were a brand of seismic entertainment, part of the Southern California “Land of the Locusts” narrative of mud slides, fires, and mass murders. 

For the past 20 years, however, even a 4.8 makes me nervous (nothing off the shelves, just a jolt or a three-second sway).  Consoling myself afterward with the knowledge that it was just a minute adjustment, a shift in the tectonic plates. 

Not like that early morning on January 17, 1994 when it felt as if the ceiling could fall on us.  Carrying the kids down the stairs (side-stepping smashed roof tiles), huddling outside with neighbors (including the couple next door whose car roof was crushed by our dislodged chimney), waiting for LAFD to shut off the gas across the street.   

When we went back into the apartment to straighten up, we discovered the living room floor separated from the wall. 

I’ve wondered, over the years,  if I’ve developed a mild case of EQ PTSD? 

Is there such a thing? 

Though I’m too “avoidant” to attend, how about that for a topic at the UCLA symposium?


(Lou Siegel works in the labor movement and blogs at LaborLou.com where this column was first posted.)






Vol 12 Issue 5

Pub: Jan 17, 2014