20 years ago today at 4:31 a.m., the Northridge earthquake shook Los Angeles, especially the San Fernando Valley and Santa Monica.
It felt like a giant jackhammer. The earth’s lateral movement was straight up and down and all around and very, very strong, powerful and fast. The bed shook, the intensity increased and the rumbling went on. I braced myself as I heard breaking, falling and crashing glass, shelves and furniture around me and I was vaguely aware of a baby crying. Minutes later, the world went eerily and instantly dark as the shaking subsided. Everything went black. I heard only a cacophony of shrieking car alarms and, in the distance, the sound of sirens.
In the aftermath, I learned that 57 people had died, including residents of an apartment complex called Northridge Meadows. Freeways had collapsed. Infrastructure had been severely affected. The suburban newspaper newsroom where I was a stringer had been damaged. The San Fernando Valley’s 2 million residents were without water for days, then a week, despite assurances from city and county government. Finally, private companies such as Arrowhead Water provided what we used to call charity to those in need. Bottled water businesses, attacked by environmentalists and vilified by the government with punitive fees, transported an ample supply of water to the affected area. The charity was not only Arrowhead’s. Story after story came through of small, medium and large businesses donating food, water, medicine and other desperately needed supplies to southern California. The disaster affirmed my conviction that in general (especially in times of crisis, such as during Hurricane Katrina and attacks at Pearl Harbor, on 9/11 and at Boston), modern U.S. government fails to protect lives and the general welfare. During Northridge, I realized firsthand that society is better off at the mercy of those who seek to make money, who do goodwill of their own private, voluntary free choice.
Personally, the 1994 quake changed the way I live. I came away from the quake with a wealth of knowledge about preparedness. Today, I stock first aid kits, whistles, flashlights, water and other supplies for mobile, home and auto and I encourage others to do the same (I reviewed a fun quake book for kids in this 2009 book review post). I try to hold drills and remember to duck, cover and hold during an earthquake. I know that living in paradise comes with consequences.
Most of all, though, as I wrote in the Los Angeles Daily News after the Northridge earthquake, I gained a deeper appreciation for the city of angels.
Though insurance fraud was rampant after the quake, which led to insurers raising standards and premiums (which in turn triggered the state’s asinine Earthquake Authority, ending private quake insurance) the disaster mostly brought out what I love about these modern, Western pioneers I call my southern California neighbors. Here, people work hard – as hard or harder and more industriously than anywhere – enjoy play and adopt a healthy, positive, laissez-faire, rational and self-interested attitude about life and its trials. The great American cowboy type exists in Los Angeles, where today’s individualist is likely to be proud, productive and self-reliant to the extent possible in an increasingly fascist welfare state. The L.A. attitude is more live and let live than anywhere I’ve seen. There were countless examples after the quake. Day after day, I’ve seen countless examples since. The spirit here is to build. And to rebuild. And to encourage others to make themselves into who and whatever they choose to be.
I have seen this over and over in a city with riots, brush fires, mudslides and earthquakes. Los Angeles, California is in this sense America’s most American city. L.A. is filled with the world’s best artists, entrepreneurs and profit-seekers of all types. They work in industries across the spectrum, from manufacturing, shipping and defense to science, medicine and technology. They are generally benevolent and magnanimous in spirit, strong and resilient in disaster and self-made in character. They tend in crisis to activate, mobilize and help without pretense, fuss or strings attached and, when they help, they do it with awareness that it advances themselves. In short, southern Californians are the embodiment of the best in Western man. I saw this fact in evidence 20 years ago today.