Californians Pull Together To Rebuild After Quake

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

SOME people vow to leave by week's end. Others, plucky and resilient, plan to rebuild their lives and homes. Joel Sarradet isn't sure what he'll do.

Sitting on his front stoop here, the handyman and hair-salon owner wants to see what it will take to repair his home and business before deciding his future.

``I don't want to make any quick decisions,'' he says.

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Mr. Sarradet is emblematic of many southern Californians.

Even as the region tries to pick itself up after a devastating earthquake, it is sifting through the doubt and debris for lessons for a state whose identity all too often seems entwined with disaster, natural and manmade.

From the 1992 riots to last October's fires to the temblor, the region is again being forced to overcome adversity when the economy is weak and faith in the California dream has been shaken. (Washington's response and relief efforts, Page 6.)

``There is going to be a lot of rethinking of California intellectually,'' says Kevin Starr, a California historian. ``Where do we place human settlements? What can we afford? This is another component of that rethinking.''

To its credit, the area's social fabric seems to be holding together. Residents of the San Fernando Valley - the area most devasted by the quake - helped each other in the early hours after the temblor and in the cleanup since.

There were heroic rescues from beneath collapsed buildings and freeways. Looting was held to a minimum. Residents shared batteries and battered emotions.

But major problems and questions remain for Valley residents and others heavily impacted by the quake. Not the least of them will be how well a city that more than any other is defined by the car will get along with major sections of its freeway grid closed, possibly for months.

Traffic problems

Segments of three heavily trafficked highways, and several others, were damaged in the Jan. 17 temblor. State and local transportation officials are establishing alternative commuting routes for drivers. But with sections of the Santa Monica Freeway (I-10) in the city, which carries close to 300,000 vehicles a day, and the Golden State Freeway (I-5) and Antelope Valley Freeway (Highway 14) in the San Fernando Valley closed, hundreds of thousands of commuters will be affected.

California Department of Transportation officials say some repairs will take well over a year. One main artery damaged in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake still isn't open.

While engineers are repairing overpasses and roadways, they also will be looking at why spans collapsed. Bill Iwan, professor of engineering at the California Institute of Technology and chairman of the state Seismic Safety Committee, says damage to roads and structures was disturbingly similar to that after the 1971 Sylmar quake, also in the San Fernando Valley, even though new earthquake standards have been put into effect and some bridges were retrofitted.

The damage could have been worse, though. Many of the more than a dozen bridges damaged Jan. 17 had not yet been reinforced under a $1 billion renovation program launched after the San Francisco quake. Some 300 of 900 highway structures targeted for reinforcement under the 1989 program have been modernized.

This week's devastation will likely prompt an acceleration of that program - and calls for more stringent safety codes.

``We can build high-rise freeway structures that won't go down,'' says Glenn Borchardt, a consultant who does earthquake planning for the state. ``But they are expensive.''

Scrutiny will focus on other types of construction as well. The collapse of Northridge Meadows, an apartment building in Northridge near the epicenter of the quake, accounted for 15 of the roughly three dozen fatalities known to have occurred so far. It was a three-story structure with a parking garage underneath.

Though similar structures in the valley survived the temblor, some engineers still consider apartments with garages underneath unsafe. Several mobile-home parks also went up in smoke after trailers were knocked off foundations and gas lines ruptured. Should owners be made to bolt trailers to their foundations or install ``flexible'' utility lines?

These and other questions will be taken up as politicians and engineers comb through the rubble. Indeed, this quake left mysterious footprints like others in the past: Some buildings along Ventura Boulevard., a main commercial artery in the valley, were destroyed while others nearby, usually newer ones, went virtually untouched.

Traditionally, California lawmakers have been reluctant to make private building owners retrofit structures. Cost is the main reason. This quake, which destroyed more than 1,000 buildings and is expected to result in several billion dollars in damage, will test the politics of seismic codes.

Building debate

``We need to take a more proactive look at building practices,'' says Mike Davis, a local author who writes extensively about Los Angeles. ``Too often we only react after something devastating occurs - and then we tend to focus only on the most egregious problems.''

The earthquake struck along a previously unknown branch of the long-dormant Oak Ridge fault. The fissure runs from the San Fernando Valley through Santa Barbara. It hasn't produced a sizable earthquake in at least 200 years. Last fall, seismologists said the fault was capable of producing at least a 6.4 quake. This one exceeded their expectations.

One reason for its destructiveness was that it occurred in a heavily populated area. The San Fernando Valley, considered one of the world's largest suburbs, is home to 1.7 million people.

The 1992 Landers quake, which occurred in the sparsely settled high desert east of here and measured 7.4 on the Richter scale, was far less destructive. This one was also a ``shallow'' earthquake, which added to its force.

While the temblor eased some tension along the Oak Ridge fault, it has not relieved the area of the risk of other major earthquakes. Scientists still predict the likelihood of a ``Big One'' - an 8.0-plus quake - somewhere along the nearby San Andreas fault within the next few decades. Scientists expect slightly less powerful temblors to occur under Los Angeles in the year ahead.

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