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How Far We’ve Come in the Year Since the Quake : Disaster: L.A.'s newfound neighborliness and can’t-break spirit will serve us well in the long recovery still ahead.

<i> Richard J. Riordan is the mayor of Los Angeles. </i>

It seems both like yesterday and years ago that the Northridge earthquake so rudely awoke Los Angeles. Each of us carries our own snapshots of those first moments and hours: darkness, the shuddering walls, the crack of falling bookcases or whole ceilings; freeways and streets collapsing like balsa wood; ruptured gas pipeline fires; sirens; hugging our families and helping or being helped by our neighbors; tense waiting for the earth to settle and stay terra firma; an awful quiet.

In the days that followed, Angelenos confronted new challenges wrought by the most serious natural disaster to beset a city in our nation’s history. The dimensions of the quake’s force are staggering, and had we not lived through them, seem unbelievable: 60 people killed and thousands injured; 40,000 people needing immediate shelter and food; 20,000 housing units destroyed and hundreds of thousands of other buildings damaged or lost; the loss of electrical power, safe water, safe roads and freeways. In all, our region suffered an estimated $20 billion of damage.

It has been said that much can be determined about the character of an individual tested by difficult times. The same is true for our city and the emergency response provided by every level of government. Cooperation was the rule. Police officers and firefighters responded immediately and with bravery and calm. City crews worked doggedly to restore electricity and services. Federal leadership cut every piece of red tape known or imagined to rush temporary shelter and ready access to resources.

The resources requested by local leaders were mobilized by President Clinton, our House and Senate delegation and dozens of civic leaders, resulting in an initial outlay of more than $11 billion from the federal government. State leadership smoothed the way to rebuild main thoroughfares. The Red Cross, Salvation Army, hundreds of community organizations, churches, synagogues and tens of thousands of unsung heroes gave of themselves and their pocketbooks to feed, clothe and secure immediate housing for earthquake victims. Neighbors discovered each other, resulting in the renaissance of neighborhood spirit--and at least one marriage.

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The long recovery process ahead will both benefit from and test the resolve for innovation, bravery and cooperation that so characterized the immediate response and the year since. Even as the city has worked with federal regulators to develop innovative financial instruments so homes--single-family, multifamily, mobile and condominium--can be rebuilt, other loan and technical-assistance programs are needed. Even as 80% of all vacant units in so-called ghost towns have public or private funds committed to repair, developing and supporting affordable housing continue to be critical goals. Even as architects draw blueprints for businesses and homes, lack of access to insurance will plague current owners and prospective buyers.

The realities of the local economy, which is beginning to mend, are that quality jobs still elude many residents. And even as the city’s emergency operations center has been upgraded, the potential for future natural disasters means that every home, school and business in our region should make emergency preparedness a priority.

The earthquake was a low point for Los Angeles, but we have since then reached immeasurable highs when compassion was the practice, innovation the attitude and constant improvement the banner. Los Angeles’ outstanding response to the earthquake should stand as a turning point in our attitude toward ourselves, our neighbors and our community, so that the billboard message around town, “You can shake L.A., but you can’t break it,” also describes our resilience during the long recovery ahead.


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