Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Remembering the Northridge Earthquake

My friend Pam reminded me this morning that today is the 18 year anniversary of the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Southern California. It's amazing how time can put the fuzzy technicolor edges on a life-altering disaster, but writing brings it into clear focus again. I had just been writing about the earthquake in the book I'm working on now, which is about our home and life burning down that same year.  Here is an excerpt:

I found Troy in the hallway, shining a flashlight on the breaker box, the smoke swirling in its beam. When he flipped the override switch, it made a loud buzzing sound.
He jumped back, “What the hell…”
“Honey, please. Don’t mess with it,” I warned.
He stepped back closer to inspect, rubbing his eyes from the sting of the smoke, “It’s gotta be just a fuse…I can fix it.”
“Please! I have a bad feeling. Let’s just leave it and call an electrician in the morning.”
“Okay, okay.”
Cold air blew in from the cracked windows. I wrapped my arms around myself, shivering. “This day is really freaking me out.”
“Sweetie,” he put his arm around me, “everything is okay. Don’t worry.” His touch was warm, his voice soothing, but it did not calm me.

I went upstairs, sat on our bed and attempted to meditate. My mind prattled on with possibilities to rationalize my behavior. That January, in the middle of the night, we had experienced a terrifying earthquake that devastated California and killed 55 people. We had awoken to what sounded like the end of the world. The earth let out a deafening roar as power lines outside snapped and blew up. Our house shook with such violent force we thought we had been bombed.  

Fires erupted all over Los Angeles. Water mains broke and flooded the streets. Buildings flattened like pancakes, freeways snapped in half like legos. California was shut down, we had no power and no way to ship merchandise as freeways had crumbled. It almost put my children’s clothing company out of business. 

It took us quite a while to bounce back from that loss, and for all four of us to be able to sleep through the night again. Strong aftershocks continued to rock California all year. Many of us had become attuned to the signs and, like animals, we could feel the shifts in weather, the particular stillness in the air. Maybe I was feeling the onset of another aftershock. Or maybe what I was feeling was an emotional aftershock. Or maybe it was my childhood issues rising up to haunt me again. What was wrong with me?

Another excerpt:

Megan had slept over the night of the 1994 earthquake. As the house shook violently, Troy and I ran for the kids, bouncing against the walls as we made our way down the hallway.  I’d grabbed Cristen and Megan and Troy swooped up Taylor. I held the girls tight in my lap until the shaking stopped. Megan, only six years old, was so terrified she peed on me. We then ran outside and were huddled in the street with our neighbors, everyone wrapped in blankets, when Brian and Johanna’s truck pulled to a screeching stop. I’ll never forget the look of terror on Brian’s face as he ran toward us, and how it turned to relief when he saw his little girl wrapped in my arms.  He knew we loved Megan as much as one of our own, and we’d never let anything happen to her. We all hugged each other so tight,  crying and thanking God that night. 

Were you in Los Angeles for the 1994 earthquake? What are your memories?


  1. Omgosh Hollye…..I can't even imagine going through an earthquake or living with the fear of it happening again. I know it comes with the territory when you live in California!! I thank God also….that you all stayed safe…..and sad for the ones who did not.


  2. Well Georgie, we rock and roll every twenty or thirty years, but we survive. And in the years between, we have this stunning weather. Today, January 17th, it is sunny and 78 degrees! : )

  3. I wasn't in LA for the earthquake - I live in NorCal - but I sure remember the SF quake in 89! Feeling the shaking, wondering if my boyfriend made it out of the Berkeley campus, and seeing the Bay Bridge collapse are memories I'll never forget.

  4. Thanks for sharing your story Jennifer. Mother Nature can be beautiful and terrifying. I also remember that night, with all the power outages, how bright and wondrous the stars were.

  5. This does make me want to revisit our earthquake provisions! Vivid!

  6. Hollye,
    The 1989 quake was a sign that my son was about to be born. I was in Oakland that night and the vision of the collapsed bridges was like something from outer space. Twisted steel reaching toward the heavens, people crying, people trying to squeeze in between the upper span that was now on the lower. You can hear people in there but you can't get to them. A chunk of my hair being pulled out when an angry fireman yanked me out roughly by my feet. He wanted to punch me, I thought. I drove 100 miles an hour on an empty freeway from San Jose to Oakland just to get to that very spot and then when I got there I was so helpless. All rescue attempts were stopped because of aftershocks. All I could do was cry. I never told my wife this story when I got home just as the sun was rising. She was so pregnant and I just cried as I held her-she was alright and so was I, at least on the outside, well except for the bump on my head. My son is 22 years old now.

  7. Wow Donald- what an incredible story. You should write it for your son.
    Judy- yes! Prepare. This story reminded me to do that- I have a very old emergency kit with expired food and such. Time to update that.

  8. dear hoyllye
    I am a middle schooler and i had a assnment to right a report on a this earthquake and i was looking up stuff about this earthquake and i had this feling not a good feeling but bad and i was thinking of that day in 1994
    and the people who died and how they left behind there family and now i dont think tis is just another assinment. And I thankyou from the bottom of my heart for making this page and enlighten me

    1. Bird,

      So sorry I didn't see your comment until just now. I hope your report got a wonderful grade, and I'm glad this blog helped you to understand your assignment in a deeper way. xo

  9. sorry about the grammar

  10. I just came across this through a link a friend shared. I was there in 1994 when the Northridge quake happened. I live in Colorado now but I am a native Californian, fourth generation. I am used to earthquakes. Some jolt suddenly without warning. Some roll and sound like a freight train coming right through the middle of your living room. Some shake softly and you wonder if it really was a quake. Still, some shake for what feels like an eternity. Some do no damage and some do deadly and devastating damage. The Northridge quake was the later. We were one of the fortunate in that the only damage we sustained were a few broken trinkets and part of the stucco on the outside of the house at our eldest daughter's bedroom. When we gained enough consciousness to realize what was happening, we ran down the hall to get to our kids. Our oldest was awake and heading toward us but our youngest was still asleep. I tried to rouse her but with no success. I finally just scooped her up and we all headed out to our small RV that just happened to be parked out on the street. Before I even got to the front door I noticed my husband wasn't with us. I called for him. He was in the dining room standing in front of an open bookcase that was filled with pressed glass dishes I had been collecting for twenty years. He was facing the case, spread eagle, trying to hold it still. He shouted, "Don't worry, honey. I've got the dishes!" At that moment I was more frightened of that bookcase falling over with all that glass on it crushing him beneath it than I was of that stupid earthquake. I told him to let it go but he insisted on saving it. Our girls were afraid for him too and also yelled for him to let it go. He finally did and we ran for the safety of our little RV. All our neighbors were out on the street waiting for the shaking to stop. Once we got the all clear, we went back inside to check out the damage and secure utility lines. The bookcase was still standing and none of the glass was broken. To this day, we talk about that quake and we always tease our youngest that she could sleep through anything.

  11. after the completion of all these classes, we all were assigned to a Disaster Action Team (DAT). Within a week, the 1994 Northridge Earthquake hit topping 7.0 recording 6.9, followed by 5.0 ever 20 minutes for a week then every hour for months. My home was hit hard, my children and I got out of the house un-hurt however, there were some close calls, I didn’t think we would as the refrigerator was thrown towards the middle of the room as most of the furniture was, well my middle child was holding on for dear life on the top bunk of her bed and my youngest survived a near miss by a 3’ x 7’ glass doll display hutch (she fell asleep on the formal family room couch) while my son slept throw it. The phones lines were down (we only had pagers then). We lost our rabbit and dog. With all that said; The Disaster Action Team. I was assigned too, in Simi Valley, California were trained to know where to report in this type of Disaster so with my three children I went to the Simi Valley High School and we had a Mass Care Shelter opened and serving hot food with 5 hours of the Northridge Earthquake. After the first 24 hours the Mass Care had to move to Royal High School, due to damage Simi High School structural building encountered. We had 240 people in one place. After the first month of that disaster I was assigned to an emergency assistance booth next to the FEMA booth. This was the beginning of my new paid start with American Red Cross. Resources opened an opportunity for ARC in the form of a Grant, for a two paid staff personal in an office, and ARC open it up in Simi Valley my home town, “Guess who was one of the Two, yes it was Diana Grace., CEO and I was her assistant, the media was all other that story “Single Mom on Welfare Lands Job by Volunteering for American Red Cross” front page. Kathrin Downes-Huard raised in Simi Valldey, Ca


I love hearing your point of view- thank you for taking the time to comment and be part of the conversation!