Sunday, January 17, 2010

Earthquake memories

Tuesday's earthquake in Haiti served as a reminder that today (Sunday) was the 16th anniversary of the 1994 Northridge Earthquake -- the largest I've ever been in (also, it was the 15th anniversary of the more-devastating Kobe Earthquake).

The Northridge quake offered me a fascinating insight of how both public safety and journalism react during a crisis. My experience:

I was living in with a roomate and two cats in a small house in Glendale, Calif., in January 1994. My roomate was in Santa Barbara with his then-girlfriend and I had stayed out until about midnight the evening before. I was sleeping at 4:31 a.m.when I heard a low rattling. The window above my bed was shaking and -- because we had had a very small temblor just a week or so before -- I immediately knew we were having an earthquake.

As soon as I was conscious enough to think "earthquake," I felt an acceleration upward then a quick drop down as the shaking began in earnest. I covered my head with my pillow, but not before seeing several blue flashes, no doubt caused by arcing powerlines touching. I think I said something to the effect of "Oh, crap, it's the Big One!" just before the earthquake stopped. I ran to the doorway of my room (much too late, of course) then into the living room, where I turned off the heater, worried about a gas leak. I then went to the bathroom and used the toilet, having drank about two liters of soda the evening prior.

I then flipped on my police scanner, which was kept next to my bed. I heard the Glendale Police conducting a unit roll call (all checked in OK) and heard the Verdugo Fire dispatch instruct its units to check their districts for damage. I heard about a collapsed parking garage behind the Glendale PD's station and began picking up LA County Fire radio traffic, including a discussion about the collapse of the intersection of the Interstate 5/Highway 14 intersection.

I decided a walk about the neighborhood would help calm my nerves, and of course the cats ran out the instant I opened the door. Going outside, I was surprised at how dark the sky was with power out across the Los Angeles Basin -- I could see the Milky Way for the first (and only) time in LA proper. I also noted a lot of my neighbors coming outside, crying and getting in their cars. I lived in a heavily Armenian neighborhood and many of my neighbors had either suffered through or lost family in the 1988 Armenian Earthquake and were justifiably traumatized.

After about a half-hour outside, I went back in and listened to the radio on the living room couch -- I even fell back asleep. I woke up when my mom called about 7 a.m. to say she was OK (I felt a little guilty later, because I think I told her something along the lines of "We should save the phone lines for emergencies."). The power came on shortly thereafter and I watched TV coverage of the disaster for a while before heading into the offices of the Glendale News-Press, where I worked at the time.

The newsroom was already in full swing, as you might imagine. The city editor, Steve Rosenberg, asked me to go with a photographer to a Luckys store in north Glendale, where I interviewed residents who were stocking up on canned food and bottled water ("A little late," I thought, and besides, the water system was fine). I also went over to the then-new Red Lion Hotel where I caught a couple out-of-town visitors and interviewed them about their first earthquake and a local restaurant, which was doing good business serving to rattled customers. I ended up having a couple bylines in the next day's paper, one under the headline of "Residents react with panic, panache."

I also did a few follow-up stories the next few days, dealing with the public transit situation (specifically the impacts on Metrolink) and the first day of classes two days later at Glendale College. I ended up getting a lot of extra work thanks to the disaster (much like after Sept. 11, 2001, where I earned a lot of extra money as a security guard at Candlestick Park).

As an aside, the one-year anniversary on Jan. 17, 1995, was also memorable for me. I was staying at a hotel in the Union Square area of San Francisco while I was house-hunting with my then-girlfriend in preparation for my upcoming move to the Bay Area. I had stayed up late the night before watching the pilot of "Star Trek: Voyager" on the hotel TV and woke up sleepily late that morning to see earthquake coverage. I initially thought it was a one-year retrospective until they made clear there had been a disaster in Japan that morning.

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