The Earthquake No One Was Ready For: Looking Back at the Deadliest Earthquake in LA History

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At 4:30 AM on January 17th , 1994, a 6.7 magnitude earthquake struck the San Fernando Valley. The epicenter of the quake was located only 25 miles north of Downtown Los Angeles.

There were thousands of aftershocks, including two that registered a magnitude of 6.0. The effects of

the quake were felt as far away as Las Vegas, Nevada.

More than 8,700 people were injured and 57 died.

This was a quake that no one was prepared for.

Scientists quickly realized that the Northridge Earthquake was on a “blind thrust” fault. Blind thrust faults hide well below the surface of the Earth. Before Northridge, there was very little study done regarding blind thrust faults.

But, after the devastation in 1994, seismologists began looking for evidence of other similar faults along the West Coast. One such fault is under downtown Los Angeles.

We’re looking back on the Northridge Earthquake to see what we’ve learned from the past that will help us prepare for the future.

What would happen to your family if an earthquake occurred tomorrow?

Northridge Earthquake Highway Collapse

Multiple Freeways collapse during the 6.7 magnitude earthquake Photo Credit: Doug Pizac/AP Photo

By The Numbers: The Impact of the Northridge Earthquake

  • $20 Billion – The cost of the structural damage caused by the quake.
  • 16 –  Deaths in the collapse of the Northridge Meadows apartment complex.
  • 203 – Reported cases of coccidioidomycosis, a respiratory disease also known as Valley Fever.
  • 11 –  Hospitals rendered unusable. These hospitals could not admit injured patients. They also had to transfer their entire inpatient populations to other nearby hospitals. This delayed the treatment of those injured in the quake, and increased the burden on other nearby hospitals.
  • 2 – Major freeways impacted by the quake. One death occurred in the collapse of the interchange; that of LAPD motorcycle officer Clarence Wayne Dean.
  • 3 – Months after the earthquake the freeways were finally ready to be used again.

  • Northridge Earthquake Parking Garage

    Parking structures like this one collapsed at California State University and The Northridge Fashion Center. Image source.

    The damage didn’t end there.

    Gas and water lines were broken. Some areas had simultaneous fires and flooding. Buildings were burnt, flooded, or both. Many areas were without public water service for days following the earthquake.

    Following a disaster, some families experience a sudden inability to access water, food, and shelter.

    Your family needn’t be one of them.

    What the Northridge Earthquake Taught Us

    The initial shake lasted only 10 to 20 seconds. But the devastating effects are still felt today by those that lost their homes and their loved ones in 1994.

    Some effects, however, were positive.

    • Infrastructure – Freeway bridges were reinforced. Building codes were updated to prevent apartment collapses like the one at Northridge Meadows.
    • Legislation – California passed a law requiring hospitals to ensure their acute care units and emergency rooms are in earthquake-resistant buildings.
    • Technology – The U.S. Geological Society (USGS) developed an early warning system called ShakeAlert. The system sends notifications to devices minutes before waves reach their location. The USGS rolled out Version 1.2 of ShakeAlert system in April 2017.
    • Scientific Discovery – Scientists quickly realized that the Northridge Earthquake was on a “blind thrust” fault. This realization lead to further study on other potential blind thrust fault areas.
    Los Angeles Skyline Northridge Earthquake

    Downtown Los Angeles could be the next city rocked by a massive quake. Photo by Owen CL on Unsplash

    One such fault is under downtown Los Angeles. That fault has the potential to be incredibly deadly.

    Despite these updates, preventing earthquakes remains impossible.

    When Will the Big One Occur?

    More than 20 years have passed since the Northridge Earthquake. Many geological surveys have been completed in that time, and seismologists all agree on one thing.

    The Big One is coming.

    A 2008 study by the USGS states that there is a 99% chance of having a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake in the next 30 years.

    It remains clear that the West Coast must be prepared for another major quake.

    The most important thing we can learn from the Northridge Earthquake is that we may never prevent, but we can always prepare.

    Earthquake preparation shouldn’t be difficult or frightening.

    Earthquake Prep in a Bag

    A report on Preparedness in America by FEMA recommends the following actions: be informed, make a plan, build a kit, and get involved.

    Those are all simple actions that you can start right now to prepare for any emergency.

    Stay informed. Learn from the past. Build your earthquake kit. Stay involved by having neighborhood earthquake drills on a regular basis.

    Make preparation a daily part of your life, and when an earthquake hits, you’ll be ready.

    If you’re looking for a place to start, check out our interview with earthquake expert Randy Breault.

     

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    • Zach Miller
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