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Out of Spotlight, L.A. Still Hurts

One lesson from the earthquake: The middle class may be the hardest hit and least prepared to recover

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 9, 1994



SHERMAN OAKS, CALIF.

IN the breakfast eateries that line battered Ventura Boulevard, the 6.6-magnitude earthquake that hit here Jan. 17 is still the topic of the hour and looks to be for months to come.

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``The national media have all but forgotten us,'' says Olaf Absoulian, a local merchant reading a copy of the New York Times with datelines from Tokyo, Beijing, Sarajevo, and Washington. ``But just look outside,'' he says, pointing to dozens of boarded-up storefronts, over 700 on this street alone, ``and you realize we're just beginning to clean up from this thing.''

The most costly urban calamity in United States history - as yet without a final price tag, although a figure as high as $30 billion is used by some - may have moved off network airwaves and the front pages of national newspapers. But the story still dominates the lives of millions here and is covered heavily in local media.

At least a dozen quake-related stories a day pepper both major dailies - the Los Angeles Times and the Daily News - not including pull-out pictorial supplements replete with stories of both fear and heroics. Special magazine sections describe the ongoing impact on businesses, schools, and homes. Full-page ``coping guides'' appear daily on where to get help on everything from food to shelter to counseling to insurance to courts.

Local, state, and federal emergency and relief efforts are getting generally high marks. This indicates that lessons have been learned about such matters from disasters in recent years. ``Assistance centers were up and running with quick response measures, fallback positions, and new ideas gleaned from past mistakes,'' says Jack Kyser, president of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation.

``Earthquake: The Long Road Back'' is the ubiquitous logo used by the L.A. Times for an ongoing series presenting status updates on airports, schools, hotels, roads, and even courtrooms. Stories on the best detours from neighborhood A to B appear frequently. Classes dealing with everything from trauma to quake damage are announced at local universities.

The list goes on: ``Quake Aid Fraud Probed''; ``Relocation for Thousands Uncertain''; ``New Building Permits Stalled''; ``Sorting out Legal Liabilities''; ``Temblor Pits Landlords against Tenants.''

``I feel like I returned to a different community than the one I left,'' complains Cal State Northridge student Trevor Burns, who was in Europe when the Jan. 17 quake hit. ``There really seems to be nothing going on here besides cleanup.''

Nightly newscasts begin and/or end with testimonies of outraged homeowners or apartment renters who feel deprived of rights when refused entrance back into their own damaged property by building inspectors. Lonnie Lardner, a local newscaster whose condemned canyonside home threatened those below, was told she had three days to demolish it - and had to pay $30,000 for the privilege.

Another man complained he was fined $500 by local authorities for entering his own apartment to salvage keepsakes.