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‘Quake Reunion’ Lifts the Spirits of Former Neighbors

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most people are trying to forget the earthquake. But for 35 people who attended an unusual “earthquake reunion” Sunday, seeing former neighbors from their severely damaged apartment complex and recounting their experience was an emotional and ultimately healing affair.

“This is the first time we’ve seen each other in five weeks,” said Ruben Hernandez, who organized the event for former neighbors of the Matilija Apartments, which are located at 4334 and 4346 Matilija Ave. in Sherman Oaks. “We were a real close-knit unit. We all looked out for each other.”

Former neighbors said the reunion not only assured them that their friends and acquaintances had recovered from the temblor, it provided the comfort of sharing with those who experienced a similar trauma.

“It’s nice to know we’re not alone,” said Ryan Augustine, a student at Cal State Long Beach.

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“People understood what you went through,” agreed social worker Dee Dee Shulman. Neighbors greeted one another with warm embraces and tearful smiles on the patio of Stanley’s Restaurant & Bar on Ventura Boulevard, where the reunion was held.

“How are you?” one woman asked another as they hugged. “Doing better, at last,” the second answered.

To ensure that the event would be helpful, Hernandez invited a psychiatrist from Valley Medical Center in Van Nuys to speak with his former neighbors about how to deal with recurring anxiety after the earthquake.

City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky answered tenants’ questions, along with representatives from the Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Los Angeles Department of Aging.

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The earthquake seemed light years away as the former neighbors got reacquainted over omelets, fresh fruit and salads. White muslin umbrellas shaded them from the bright afternoon sun.

The upbeat feeling at the reunion was due in large part to the unusual friendship and familiarity among the Matilija tenants. Neighbors said it was easy to meet because their apartments are built around a courtyard.

The apartment complex was vacated after the earthquake and city inspectors declared the building as safe for only limited entry. Most who attended the reunion have found new homes.

But they credited Hernandez with bringing them together again, even if only for a few hours.

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“He took care of us that morning,” said Nyla Rogers, a Pepperdine University psychology student. “He took control.”

Someone at the table recalled that Hernandez provided mouthwash to neighbors the morning of the quake because there was no water for toothbrushing.

Some of the former tenants, such as Karen Hare, 37, a legal secretary, spoke of the emotional and physical problems that they have encountered since the temblor. She said the quake unleashed painful memories of past hurts and losses, including the deaths of her father and brother when she was 9.

One moment, Hare said, she is calm and collected and the next she is screaming at someone.

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“Half the time I feel like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” said Hare, who dabbed at her eyes with a tissue as she described her experiences to Dr. Robert Kahn-Rose, a psychiatrist and medical director of Valley Medical Center’s Special Care Unit. Others in the group reported insomnia, nightmares, fatigue and migraine headaches.

Kahn-Rose explained that people undergo a biochemical reaction during a traumatic experience such as a natural disaster. Because the release of some hormones in the body causes anxiety, quake victims should not feel guilty or inadequate for being unable to shake these feelings off, he said.

Between 50% and 80% of those who have been through an earthquake experience fear and anxiety, Kahn-Rose said. And even now, five weeks after the quake, about two-thirds of those people continue to have those feelings, he said, based on his own patients’ experience.

The psychiatrist said the reunion was an important step toward resolving those feelings.

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“I’m supposed to be here as an expert in how to deal with the aftershocks, so to speak, of an earthquake,” he said. “Really, you are doing the right thing here, trying to show that ‘Hey, life is getting back to normal.’ ”

Yaroslavsky agreed.

“They haven’t given up on the neighborhood or each other. That’s the message.”


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