Twenty-five years ago this week, the 1994 Northridge Earthquake rattled Southern California and left behind an aftermath of collapsed freeways, widespread power outages, leveled buildings, and thousands of heavily affected people.
The 6.7 magnitude earthquake hit the Los Angeles County’s San Fernando Valley region early January 17, 1994 at 4:30 a.m., killing more than 60 people, and injuring over 9,000 others.
Damages were estimated to be over $20 billion, and economic loss estimates were around $49 billion at the time, making the earthquake among the most costly natural disasters in U.S. history.
Former California Governor Pete Wilson and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan at the time declared states of emergency. A few hours later, former President Bill Clinton declared a national disaster for Los Angeles County.
“It felt like a giant was holding our house in his hands and shaking it like a toy house,” Aileen Ligan, a Filipina-American who was living roughly 30 miles from Northridge during the earthquake, told the Asian Journal.
The earthquake was felt the strongest along the 30-mile diameter that shook across the Reseda epicenter, but activity was recorded to have been felt across the greater Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, and San Bernardino counties.
“It was the day after my birthday. I was living in Atwater Village with my husband. We were sleeping and we woke up to our house shaking,” she recalled. “It was if someone picked up our house and shook it vigorously.”
“My husband grabbed me and tried to hold me in bed because I was trying to jump out and run,” she added. “To where? I don’t know. All I knew was that the house was shaking and I had to get out.”
Ligan recalled items like books, CDs, videotapes, and even their television set being thrown down to the floor. In the kitchen, cupboard doors swung wide open as dishes flew out.
Her mother, who lived only three miles from Northridge, was fortunate to have only had a broken water heater and some minor damage to her wooden floors as a result.
But for many of her mother’s neighbors and others across LA county, the damage was much more serious as their homes became unsafe to enter and their vehicles crushed beneath the rubble.
“She was recently widowed and living alone. She was my first thought,” recalled Ligan, referring to her mother. “We couldn’t get to her immediately since we were unsure of freeway conditions.”
In addition to the over 82,000 residential and commercial buildings and the 5,400 mobile homes that were destroyed or damaged, seven major freeway bridges and nine parking structures collapsed, and nine hospitals were evacuated.
And while some people were able to find shelter with friends and family, tens of thousands of people were temporarily displaced. Many found themselves camping out in their front yards, in city parks, or in tents erected by the California National Guard.
Preparing for the ‘big one’
In light of the 25th Anniversary of the Northridge Earthquake, many have shifted attention to an imminent earthquake that many believe will be much bigger than the one in 1994.
Often referred to as the “big one,” the theoretical 7.8 magnitude earthquake on the southern San Andreas Fault could possibly cause 1,800 deaths and roughly $200 billion in economic losses, according to a 2008 U.S. Geological Survey report called “The ShakeOut Scenario.”
“These numbers are as low as they are because of aggressive retrofitting programs that have increased the seismic resistance of buildings, highways and lifelines, and economic resiliency,” wrote the report’s authors.
They added, “These numbers are as large as they are because much more retrofitting could still be done.”
Since the Northridge Earthquake, apartments, hospitals, and highways have taken on prioritized retrofitting programs and building codes. Various programs in the county have also been implemented to address preparedness for disasters.
But there’s always more that can be done in preparation for future earthquakes.
Earlier this month, the city of Los Angeles released the nation’s first earthquake-warning app called ShakeAlertLA, which detects earthquakes and sends alerts to smartphones whenever a magnitude 5.0 or stronger earthquake is expected to be felt in the Los Angeles area.
Aside from sending out warnings, the app also offers maps locating recent local earthquakes, an earthquake survival kit checklist, and other county-specific information on what to do before and after a major earthquake hits.
Ligan said her family has not yet made any immediate preparations, but they know they need to get ready.
Many tips for earthquake preparedness can be found online. Among the tips provided by the County of Los Angeles are creating a disaster supply kit that includes enough food and supplies for 10 days, creating a family emergency plan, practicing earthquake drills at home, and considering obtaining an earthquake insurance policy.
Looking back at her experience in 1994, Ligan said, “We need to stock up on water, batteries, flashlights, and cash — preferably single dollar bills.”