It was 20 Years Ago Today: The Northridge Quake

quake parking structure

On January 17, 1994 I suddenly awoke wrapped in a sheet standing in the doorjamb. I was kind of pleased that my survival instincts made sure I was safe and clothed before even bothering to wake me up. I didn’t even get out of bed for the aftershock; I was an Angeleno after all. When I finally got up and turned on the TV the first thing I saw was the Cal State Northridge parking structure – my parking structure – totally destroyed. That was where I parked my car everyday, working and taking classes at the university. I can’t call it a near miss. I mean, it was a holiday and too early in the morning for me to have been there anyways, but it was chilling nonetheless.

Little did I know that this earthquake was going to change our minds about the safety of  standing in a doorjamb. Northridge Meadows Apartments, just a few blocks from CSUN, shook so hard vertically that the nails lifted out of place, slamming the second and third stories down onto the first. What had previously been a three story building was now a two story building. It was the people who jumped out of the windows and were trapped under large pieces of furniture that survived.

From John Martin, engineer (JAMA)

“At 4:31 A.M. (local time) on Monday, January 17, 1994, a magnitude 6.8 earthquake woke nearly everyone in southern California. The earthquake epicenter was beneath the San Fernando Valley, 20 miles (32 km) west-northwest of downtown Los Angeles, near the community of Northridge (34° 13′ N, 118°32’W).

The main shock occurred on a shallowly-dipping, previously unknown thrust fault. The rupture started at a depth of about 12 miles (19 km) and, during the course of the main shock, traveled upward and northward, spreading both eastward and westward. The focal mechanism of the main shock from both first motions and teleseisms shows a N 60° W striking and 35° to 45° south dipping plane. Rock on the south side of the fault surged upward and over the rock on the north side. As a result of the quake, the Earth’s crust south of the San Fernando Valley moved slightly closer to the Earth’s crust north of the valley, and the mountains just north of the valley are slightly higher.

Damage was most extensive in the San Fernando Valley, the Simi Valley, and in the northern part of the Los Angeles Basin. After the earthquake, a total of 24,000 dwellings were vacated. The death toll from the quake was 57. The total cost of the earthquake was estimated to be at least $10 billion. The Northridge earthquake is significant since it was the most expensive earthquake and one of the most expensive natural disasters in United States history, yet it occurred on a previously unknown fault.

Northridge Meadows Apartment Complex: Not far from the Northridge Fashion Mall, sixteen people were killed when the 164-unit Northridge Meadows Apartment collapsed. In an area of several square miles, intense damage occurred to apartments built in the 1960s and early 1970s (prior to the latest revisions in the building codes for multi-family housing). Many of these apartment buildings had “soft” first stories.”

I drove around Northridge in disbelief, documenting the damage. So many “dingbat” apartment buildings had collapsed onto the cars parked below I swore never to live in one. Regardless of the type of building, some were opened up like dollhouses and some were torn down the middle. I also photographed some of the damage in Hollywood, mostly to the brick buildings along Hollywood Boulevard.

It’s hard to believe so much time has passed. There was a little trembler just the other night, just a little reminder to keep your flashlights and sneakers by your beds. 

Elise Thompson

About Elise Thompson

Born and raised in the great city of Los Angeles, this food, culture and music-loving punk rock angeleno wants to turn you on to all that is funky, delicious and weird in the city. While Elise holds down the fort, her adventurous alter ego Kiki Maraschino is known to roam the country in search of catfish.
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