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1994: A PORTFOLIO : Not the ‘Big One,’ but Big Enough

Until Newt Gingrich, 1994 was not an especially newsy year. --Media critic Jonathan Alter in Newsweek, Dec. 26

Poor Jonathan. He works in New York. Life back East must be so drab and dull. Around these parts, we found 1994 to be nothing short of earthshaking. Why, for Los Angeles, 1994 was the newsiest year since, gosh, 1992. True, a major earthquake may not have the social impact of a major riot, and it may not inspire the fascination of a double homicide in Brentwood, but at 4:31 a.m. on Jan. 17 millions of Southern Californians were fairly certain that there was some serious news going on.

It wasn’t the “Big One,” seismologists said, but everybody agreed it was big enough. Ultimately measured at 6.7 in magnitude, the Northridge earthquake (the name stuck though the epicenter was eventually fixed in Reseda) would be blamed for 57 deaths, more than 7,700 injuries and more than $15 billion in damage to homes, apartment complexes, shopping centers, office buildings, businesses, hospitals, schools and freeways.

As if that wasn’t enough, the Weekly World News, available at your local supermarket checkout stand, broke an exclusive of biblical proportions: “L.A. QUAKE OPENS GATES OF HELL!” An exclusive photo showed a monstrous creature climbing from a crack in the Golden State Freeway, one of “17 and possibly 18 demons” to do so. What’s more, the Weekly World News reported that the true quake magnitude was 6.66! (The devil with a decimal point.)

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Whether it was an act of God or the work of the devil, there is nothing like an earthquake--so hard to predict, so powerful, seemingly so arbitrary--to make people wonder about the theology of geology, or at least the fickleness of fate. Wars and riots are human events; the instinct is to blame each other, and maybe do some soul-searching on the side. Natural calamities inspire another kind of reckoning.

“How can God let those things happen?” Leslie, age 7, asked his mother, when the power was back on and images of destruction flickered on the TV.

Lita struggled for an answer: “I told him, ‘God is tired from bad people. He’s tired from the people killing each other. From kids killing parents, parents abusing kids. He wants everybody to change. . . . We have to really be good inside, because whatever happens, we have to be ready.”

When I first wrote about Lita’s conversation with her son, with its oblique reference to the Menendez case, several readers wrote to complain that Lita shouldn’t teach a concept of an angry God. But indeed, several Christian fundamentalists said L.A. was being punished for its wicked ways.

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In a “Tonight Show” monologue, Jay Leno picked up the theme. He mimicked God holding Los Angeles in the palm of his hand, angrily shaking the city: “They’re still making those porno films in L.A.?!?

But when Times religion writer Larry Stammer explored the deeper meanings of the Northridge quake, he found that Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim clerics “were nearly unanimous in not blaming God for the earthquake. Many, but not all, were hesitant to call it judgment from on high.”

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Pastor Jack W. Hayford of the 8,000-member Church on the Way in Van Nuys, one of the largest congregations affiliated with the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel denomination, gently admonished Christians who saw the quake as God’s judgment: “God isn’t responsible for pain. He didn’t collapse an apartment house and kill 16 people. He didn’t collapse a freeway so that a motorcycle officer could drive off.”

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Maher Hathout, chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California, said Muslims look at natural disasters not as God’s wrath, but as a test. “The feeling of Muslims is that with every difficulty there is a test. And with every difficulty there is some kind of mercy in disguise. It may bring out the best in people, the best in the community, and remind people of their limitations and the unlimited power of God that is embedded in nature.”

Was it “mercy in disguise” or just luck that the earthquake hit when traffic was light and people were home in bed? Did it bring out the best in people and the community? Certainly, it did so with some. There were heroes who pulled survivors from the collapsed Northridge Meadows apartment building, and the generous souls who shared food and blankets at the tent cities. And with major leaguers on strike, it was sure nice to cheer on the Northridge “Quake Kids” to their U.S. Little League championship. Did Los Angeles pass or flunk this test? The question still seems premature, with so many homes and other buildings still in need of repair and reinforcement.

In many ways, however, life has returned to normal, such as it is. Before the year was out, part of Northridge Fashion Center was reopened in time for Christmas shoppers and, lest we forget, John Wayne Bobbitt came to town to make a porno film.


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