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Opinion

Readers React: What did readers talk about after the Northridge quake in 1994? Fires, spared TVs and God

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A collapsed portion of the State Route 15 interchange with the 5 Freeway after the Northridge earthquake in January 1994.
( Los Angeles Times)

Is a city that’s farther north than Bakersfield and closer to Death Valley than the Pacific Ocean really part of Southern California? By now, it doesn’t matter, because almost as soon as the magnitude-6.4 earthquake centered near Ridgecrest, Calif., struck Thursday morning, it was dubbed “Southern California’s” strongest shake in more than two decades.

More specifically, Thursday’s earthquake was the largest in Southern California since Jan. 17, 1994, when the magnitude-6.7 Northridge earthquake (which was actually centered beneath Reseda) killed 57 people and caused billions of dollars in damage. To many who have lived in Los Angeles for decades, that earthquake is the standard by which all others are compared.

For that reason, it’s worth looking back at what L.A. Times letter writers’ reactions were in the weeks after that disaster. Given the trauma inflicted by the Northridge earthquake, it’s striking that mixed in with expressions of dismay, resolve and gratitude for first responders are comedic quips and (of course) political attacks.

In a letter published Jan. 21, 1994, Matthew Hetz of Los Angeles put the earthquake into historical context:

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“After the past two years, with urban unrest, massive layoffs, crime, floods, fires and now the earthquake, we in Southern California continue to withstand an onslaught of troubles, tragedy and sorrows witnessed by few other, if any, cities of the country. Yet, there has been an incredible degree of courage, resilience and determination among us here to withstand these traumatic and testing times. Some have referred to us as mellow or as flakes or castoffs, but like the soft clay hardened in the kiln, we, under the California sun, have hardened ourselves to not only withstand but continue to thrive under the most adverse conditions.”

In a letter published the same day, Tracy Wallace of Los Angeles thanked the L.A. Times:

“I am a Times subscriber, and many of my friends kid me because I love to read the paper so much and always have a stack of things I still want to read but don’t have the time for. When the earthquake hit, my 20-inch TV fell off its shelf. Instead of hitting the floor, it hit my stack of newspapers and survived! Thank you, L.A. Times!”

On Jan. 25, 1994, Seal Beach residents Charles and Anne Supple summed up the mood in Los Angeles:

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“Fires in ’93! Earthquakes in ’94! Would the last person to leave please close the door?”

On Jan. 21, 1994, reader F. Murillo of Rancho Santa Margarita decried tax-and-spend state legislators:

“As the story of our latest earthquake unfolded, I couldn’t help but wonder how long it would take Assembly Speaker Willie Brown to suggest a new increase in the sales tax. What a surprise — with all that media covering the earthquake, he gets on the news with the proposal in less than 12 hours!”

“But I’m a little puzzled. Do we just keep adding a half percent here, a full percent there every time we have an earthquake? Should we get a committee to study how much tax increase we need to cover the various magnitude quakes?”

In the Jan. 29, 1994 paper, Jeff Douthwaite of Santa Barbara wondered about divine intervention, or a lack thereof:

“If it takes an earthquake or two to awaken people to the reality of God and all the associated mumbo jumbo, then it’s a plus. Such shock therapy may help people grow up. It should be abundantly clear by now to all that there is no God up there directing quakes or fires or floods, etc. It is simply the way the Earth is made.

“Study geology, physics or civil engineering if you want to know. God has nothing to do with it.”

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