Two Years Later, and Counting : HEARTS of the CITY / Exploring attitudes and issues behind the news


When the shaking started in the predawn blackness, I was awake. For almost 30 years I have lived in California but until that morning two years ago, I had escaped any encounters with a large quake. I remember thinking, well, it’s finally happened and then being gripped by a morbid curiosity. How big, I kept wondering. How big?

Very big, it seemed. My house sits on a ridge in Studio City. Outside, blue flashes lit the neighborhood like lightning. The transformers were blowing. Inside, a roar filled the house. I could hear glass and heavy things smashing onto the floors. The house and the ground itself had taken on a rubbery quality, like something in a cartoon.

When it stopped, I picked my way toward the front door. A primal instinct seems to drive everyone from buildings in the wake of an earthquake. I found my neighbors already standing in their yards. No one seemed terrorized or even surprised by the quake, and no one seemed hurt. The neighborhood had escaped, we concluded, with only small damage.


We were wrong. I got in my car to check out the city, ever the journalist, and drove down my street toward Ventura Boulevard. But in the pure darkness, I never noticed in the next block that something was missing. Three houses, in fact. They had slipped down the hill and lay in smoking ruins. Even as I drove past, the occupants were tangled in the rubble, trying to crawl out. Some journalist.

In the end, the tally on our street grew larger. Two other houses were discovered with their foundations askew and declared unsafe. A third ended with the exquisite dilemma of a large, brick chimney resting horizontally on its roof, bending the rafters and threatening to crash through at any moment.


Now, two years later, our street seems to have made a comeback. Two of the houses that collapsed are being rebuilt by the very people who rode down the hill. And of the two houses with slipped foundations, one has been restored and the other is getting there.

But the site of the third collapsed house remains empty. And the owner of the house with the brick chimney on the roof walked away from the property. The bank took it over, lifted off the chimney, and is trying to sell it. No takers, yet.

You can see the same phenomenon all over the Valley and parts of the Westside. Huge amounts of money and energy have been thrown into the restoration. But the drama continues.

On street after street in Studio City, Reseda or Santa Monica you can still see the dumpsters at the curb, the forlorn buildings empty of people, the chain-link construction fences. It never seems to end. One set of houses and offices gets rebuilt only to have the dumpsters move down the street to the next set.


I have friends who live just west of Coldwater in the Valley and in the past two years I have never driven down their street without seeing one house or another under serious repair. And so it goes.

The tenacity of the damage, in fact, represents one of the great and humbling lessons of the Northridge quake. True recovery does not happen in months or even a couple of years. The blows from a large earthquake go so deep that a city can spend billions of dollars toward recovery and still be working hard at it when the second anniversary arrives. That’s where Los Angeles finds itself today.

As long as we’re discussing lessons, there’s a couple more: Northridge has also crippled, perhaps fatally, the very concept of earthquake insurance. Even now, many new homeowners find it impossible to buy earthquake insurance at any price. Many others have seen their premiums double or worse. Some insurers, such as 20th Century, have withdrawn from the market altogether rather than face the prospect of another Northridge.

In many ways, California’s problem with earthquake insurance resembles the Gulf Coast’s problem with hurricane insurance. In both cases, solutions have been proposed but virtually all require the involvement of government. And thus they have languished.

Because companies have limited access to earthquake insurance, the next quake will likely produce much less in the way of recovery money. And that means the Next One could produce a sort of lingering death for the city it strikes.


That leaves us with the last issue, the intriguing and frightening question surrounding the Next One. We now know that, seismically speaking, California has entered an era of high activity. In the past decade the frequency of large earthquakes in the state has increased by several-fold.


What would happen if Los Angeles were hit by another Northridge, or its equivalent, before it emerged from the shadow of the last one? You could pose the same question for the Bay Area, which was hit by the Loma Prieta quake in 1989.

Would people start to give up, psychologically surrendering to the destruction? Would business begin shying away because of the danger and head for Utah instead?

The truth is, no one knows. This kind of seismic activity has not been seen since California was settled, so we are all pioneers of sorts. Like most pioneers, we are at the mercy of events. Perhaps the best thing to do is strap down your water heater, wait and watch. In good time, all will be revealed.