The Northridge Quake: One Year Later : L.A.--It's Faulty, but It's Home

My friend Paul is an L.A. kind of guy.

He's lived in Washington, Alaska and San Diego, but Los Angeles is home. Not only is he an attorney--a very L.A. kind of profession--but his office is in the silver Downtown tower that housed the fictional firm of McKenzie Brackman in "L.A. Law." Paul roots, roots, roots for the home teams, especially the Dodgers and the Lakers.

His devotion is such that it sometimes distorts his judgment. Paul once compared the "Showtime" tandem of Magic Johnson and James Worthy to the legendary teammates Ruth and Gehrig. Now, Magic was indeed a player for the ages. Worthy was good, but . . .

Paul and his wife, Debbie, live in Studio City with their three happy children and one skittish dog. Their home is big and handsome and close enough to the Ventura Freeway to know when an 18-wheeler is rumbling by.

One year and a day ago, Paul says, he would hear a soft roar and feel a slight vibration and think, "That's a truck." If he thought anything at all.

These days Paul admits to a millisecond of fearful doubt. Now he thinks, "That's a truck. Isn't it?

*

You didn't really think you'd be able to read a Valley Edition column on Jan. 17 that made no reference to the Northridge earthquake, did you?

No doubt many people would prefer to pass today without any reminders. What makes today any more special than the 364th day after, or the 366th day? Sorry, but we media people love anniversaries. So do politicians. That's why President Clinton is scheduled to visit the Valley today, and Mayor Richard Riordan is supposed to have breakfast at Art's Deli.

No, save for this pomp and circumstance, this should be a pretty routine Tuesday, devoid of natural disaster. (Knock on wood.) For all the damage yet to be repaired, it's good to remember that for the most part, life in Los Angeles is very much the way it was before the quake. Most of us aren't living in fear . . . except for that millisecond when it sounds like maybe a quake is coming.

An example: Paul didn't call me Sunday night to rehash the quake experience and all its psychological implications. He called because he happened to have a couple of tickets for the Lakers-Clippers game on Monday that he couldn't use--terrific seats, he said, on the floor behind press row. They could be mine, gratis. That was the good news. The bad news was that game time was 1:30 p.m., and I still hadn't written my column for Tuesday. How could I get my column done and get to the Laker game on time?

Paul wanted to talk about Nick Van Exel and Cedric Ceballos and the most exciting Laker team since Magic retired. But I forced him to talk about the quake, because that's my job. Paul and Debbie's story is fairly typical. When the quake hit, they headed downstairs. Their toddler, Molly, was in the hall, and their older boy, Zach, was dutifully standing in a doorway. And where was the middle child, Matt? He was still in bed, fast asleep. (Matt told me this about a week after the quake, but I wasn't sure whether to believe him.)

Just about everything that could topple over had toppled over, and a cinder block wall had crumbled. Their home made it through without significant structural damage. Paul considers himself lucky; each of his sisters had more than $100,000 in damage to their homes, and of course many had it worse.

Paul and Debbie managed to clean up most of the house by noon, hoping to re-establish a veneer of normalcy. (When I asked Matt about the aftershocks, he giggled and said they were fun.) Paul is a resilient man, but he admits his psyche isn't the same, not with that shudder of doubt when a big truck rumbles by. It's a feeling we all share, I suspect, having felt too many aftershocks and having heard that scientists say that maybe, just maybe, the geology beneath us is preparing for a greater quake.

Yet in the face of such forecasts, Paul and Debbie aren't planning to leave L.A., and in that respect too, they are typical. A lot of people talk about leaving someday. But most of us are here for the long haul.

*

"Where would I go? Someplace in the Midwest? No thanks," Paul says. "If you want to stay out of the snow, that eliminates most of the East. I can't really see myself in Texas or Alabama or someplace."

It was the usual L.A. defense. Sure, we have spectacular wildfires and mudslides, but those troubles tend to be reserved for the rural fringe. Yes, we're in constant danger of a major earthquake, but Southern California isn't known for killer hurricanes, tornadoes or blizzards.

We reassured each other by noting that more people died in the big freeze back East than died in the Northridge quake. We avoided the typically scary speculation of how bad it might have been had the quake struck at rush hour. Paul, keeping the tone upbeat, pointed out that crime is going down.

Paul put me in such a good mood that I decided to take a long lunch Monday. At the Forum. The food wasn't that good, but what you really pay for is the atmosphere, like when the home team rallies from behind in the fourth quarter and they crank up Randy Newman's "I Love L.A."

Scott Harris' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to Harris at the Times Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, Calif. 91311. Please include a phone number. Address TimesLink or Prodigy e-mail to YQTU59A ( via the Internet: YQTU59A@prodigy.com).

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