Twenty five years ago, at 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1994, the Northridge earthquake shook Angelenos from their beds. For those of us who lived through it, the memories of chaos early in the morning are unforgettable.
"We were just literally startled awake by a freight train driving right through our bedroom," said my father, Mark Margolis, who along with my sister, my mother and myself, was sleeping just about seven miles from the epicenter. "I mean the blinds that were supposed to be hanging vertical were like out horizontal. So, there was a tremendous amount of movement."
I was only five, and remember being pulled from my bed into the dark hallway by my parents. Our house was trashed, with everything from our shelves and inside our refrigerator thrown to the ground.
After things calmed down, we walked outside. I remember dark silhouettes of my neighbors milling about, trying to figure out what to do, just as dawn began to break and aftershocks rolled through.
When the sun rose, everyone was able to take stock of the damage.
The 6.7 magnitude earthquake destroyed freeways and buildings, cracked streets and left swaths of Los Angeles without power for a period of time.
"I remember driving down one of the main streets and there was like water coming up from the ... street because there were broken gas lines as well as broken water lines. There was water, but there were also flames coming out of the water," my dad said. "So, burning water ... I mean how often do you see that?"
At least 57 people died and $40 billion in damage was done.
Many Angelenos were displaced for a period of time. Some people were lucky enough to stay with family and friends. Some had to live for days in parks as the structural integrity of their buildings was assessed.
Prepared for the next one?
Every time an earthquake hits, we learn new things about just how unprepared we are.
Since Northridge, building codes have improved and retrofit programs for hospitals, apartments and freeways have been implemented. The hope is that those improvements leave us safer. But Southern California hasn't had an earthquake strong enough to test the region in earnest anytime since.
About 7,000 miles of water pipes are currently being retrofitted by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, so that they don't crack in an earthquake. That could mean contamination or complete loss of water to homes. Craig Davis, the Water System Resilience Program Manager, said that it will take 120 years to fix the entire system.
According to seismologists, an earthquake far bigger than Northridge could hit at anytime.
Dr. Lucile Jones was the lead author on a 2008 report called "The ShakeOut Scenario" for the U.S. Geological Survey. In it, they describe a theoretical but likely earthquake: A 7.8 magnitude temblor on the southern San Andreas fault that would be 44 times stronger than Northridge.
The report estimates that if that earthquake occurs, 1,800 people could die, buildings could collapse, an estimated $200 billion in damage could be done and conflagrations could break out.
"Northridge was an event that disrupted the lives of people in the San Fernando Valley extensively ... disrupted our community for a year or two," Dr. Jones said. "The big San Andreas earthquake is going to disrupt the lives of everybody in Southern California and it could take us decades to recover what we lose."
LA Mayor Eric Garcetti has worked with Jones to implement various programs designed to improve the city's resilience. "We're better prepared for the big one than any big city in America," he says, "which is to say, we're woefully unprepared."
Limited water and overwhelmed emergency services after a big quake hits could mean large fires spreading quickly throughout the hills and neighborhoods, according to Jones. Mark Ghilarducci, director of California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, said it could take 48 to 72 hours for outside help to arrive in Southern California. Meaning, 10 million people should expect to be largely on their own for a few days after the disaster.
There is some good news: "Most of the time under most circumstances ... you're going to see people become the best version, the most altruistic version of themselves, especially in those first couple of minutes and moments after the event," said Joe Trainor, who studies disasters and crisis at the University of Delaware.
That said, to survive a major earthquake, it's important that people take steps to prepare. Stock up on water, food, medicine and make sure that there's some alternate form of shelter in case homes are unlivable. Everyone who lives in an earthquake zone should have some sort of emergency plan in place and coordinate that plan with friends and family.
This story comes from the producers and host of a new podcast, "The Big One - Your Survival Guide."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Twenty-five years ago today here in Los Angeles, at 4:30 in the morning, the 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake hit. Fifty-seven people died as this area went dark, freeways were destroyed, buildings collapsed. It was one of the costliest disasters in U.S. history, causing over $40 billion in damages. Los Angeles was caught unprepared.
And decades later, there are still questions being asked about whether they are ready for the next one. KPCC's Jacob Margolis has been looking into this for a new podcast, called, "The Big One: Your Survival Guide," which is supposed to do what it suggests. It is to help people in Southern California get ready for the big one and also show how people might not be as prepared as they think. Jacob, welcome.
JACOB MARGOLIS, BYLINE: Hey. Thanks for having me.
GREENE: Let's just dig into this moment looking back 25 years ago. For people who are not familiar with LA, I mean, can you just put in context how big a deal Northridge was?
J. MARGOLIS: Yeah. So imagine you're laying in your bed. It's 4:30 in the morning. Presumably, you're sound asleep. And all of a sudden, this random force of nature that no one had predicted just rips you from it. You head outside. You see your neighbors milling about in kind of the dawn light as it starts to break, and they look like - it looks like a scenario from "The Walking Dead." And as the sun comes up, you can actually start to survey the damage. I talked to my dad about it - 'cause I was a bit young at the time - and asked him what he saw that day. And he actually let me know.
MARK MARGOLIS: I remember driving down one of the main streets, and there were broken gas lines, as well as broken water lines. There were also flames coming out of the water. Very surreal. You know? Burning water. I mean, how often do you see that?
GREENE: Wow. That's an image.
J. MARGOLIS: Absolutely. And it was chaos. And the entire time you're trying to recover from the quake, there's these aftershocks rolling through, one after the other. So there's this really deep feeling of some sort of, like, unknowable force just upsetting your life.
GREENE: Well, I mean, clearly, that was so destructive, you know, I'm afraid to ask. But talk about exactly what scientists are predicting in terms of the next big quake here.
J. MARGOLIS: There's an infinite number of scenarios, but one of the most studied is a possible 7.8 magnitude quake on the San Andreas Fault. And I asked seismologist Lucy Jones, who was the lead author for the "ShakeOut" report, which studied specifically that about the quake and how it compared to Northridge.
LUCY JONES: Northridge was an event that disrupted our community for a year or two. The big San Andreas earthquake is going to disrupt the lives of everybody in Southern California, and it could take us decades to recover what we lose.
J. MARGOLIS: So 7.8 versus a 6.7, which is what we saw in Northridge. We're talking about 44 times stronger than back in 1994.
GREENE: Forty-four times? I mean, are we - I mean, she said disrupting the lives of people for years. But I mean, are we talking about almost destroying much of Los Angeles?
J. MARGOLIS: It's going to take a lot to recover. I mean, we're looking at possibly 1,800 people could die, thousands could be injured. Big buildings could collapse, roads in and out of the area could be impassable. We could suffer losses in the hundreds of billions. And the most scary to me are the fires that are going to be caused by electrical and gas problems, which could spread just across the cities. And it's going to take 48 to 72 hours to get outside help in. There will not be enough emergency responders to fight all those fires and to help all the people that need help. And so that period of time to me is one of the scariest.
GREENE: Well, I guess real question, Jacob, is how ready is Los Angeles for something like that? Did they learn a lot of good lessons from Northridge?
J. MARGOLIS: They did. I mean, there's new building codes for hospitals, for freeways, for certain apartment buildings, as well as retrofit programs. And they're also working on improving really important things, like our water system, which will crack and break when the big one rolls through, most likely. That said, we have a long way to go. And overall, I think especially on the individual level, people are very unprepared.
GREENE: KPCC's Jacob Margolis is host of the new podcast, "The Big One: Your Survival Guide." Jacob, thanks.
J. MARGOLIS: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.