LOS ANGELES — ONE year after the costliest disaster in United States history -
the 6.7-magnitude earthquake here - Los Angeles is still a city in repair and transition.
Scaffolded office buildings, ubiquitous piles of brick and mortar, and abandoned ``ghost'' apartments sit as present reminders of the jolt has become a defining moment in the region's history.
Yet, even as homeowners continue to repair foundations and lawmakers debate safety codes, the quake that struck in the inky morning hours of Jan. 17, 1994, has also served to pull neighborhoods together in this normally fragmented city and pump new life into areas of the economy. Just how far Los Angeles has - and hasn't - come is summed up in three views from an intersection in the San Fernando Valley, not far from the earthquake's epicenter:
* ``I'm truly amazed at the way government and citizens have come together to streamline the rebuilding,'' says Bruce Frasco, senior vice president of Beitler Commercial Realty Services. From his 21st-floor window at the corner of Sepulveda and Ventura Blvds., Mr. Frasco applauds a real estate rebound that has brought the hardest-hit commercial strip in the sprawling Valley from 14 percent to 7 percent vacancy since before the quake.
* ``It's been just devastating,'' says LaVon Young, who lost her job at the Radisson Hotel, one of several major buildings still closed and draped in scaffolding just a block away. Repeatedly denied federal emergency aid for lost possessions, she recounts a year of difficult living on $4,528 in unemployment benefits. She eagerly awaits news she can return to work. ``I know I'm lucky to have a roof over my head,'' she says, ``but I need to get my income back.''
* ``I thought business would be a little better by now,'' says Michael Ourieff, owner of a pizzeria that has just moved into a new location from where his original building was damaged blocks away. He complains of a suit recently filed by the Sherman Oaks Homeowner's Association to slow implementation of a redevelopment plan that could remake the town's main boulevard with widened sidewalks and storefronts.
``The homeowners want to have some say in what gets done, which is fine,'' he says, ``but we need the money - now.''
The temblor did hit at an inopportune for the city.
``For the first time in state history, a major earthquake hit during deep recession,'' says Los Angeles historian Mike Davis.
Through paramount necessity, he says, such a ``disharmonic convergence'' has presented the scores of affected communities an unparalleled opportunity to redesign response and preparation mechanisms, remake economic-social programs, and lay new foundations - from streets and buildings to community cooperation.
Whether and how that will happen, though, is a story just beginning.
Perhaps most indicative of the wide debate here is a state Seismic Safety Commission report about the reform of building codes and land-use planning. Due to the governor this week after months of delays, it is still not ready. Commission members cannot agree on recommendations about the retrofitting of freeways and new standards for steel-frame buildings and homes.
``The quake revealed both the enormous and terrifying extent of seismic danger in our structures, and the system's political inability to deal with it,'' says Mr. Davis.
Last week Southern California received more sobering news: a year - and 10,000 aftershocks - after the Northridge-centered quake, scientists from two universities and the US Geological Survey produced studies predicting that a barrage of 6.7 or stronger earthquakes are likely in the near future.
But nudged in part by the state's recent pull out of recession, the complete comeback of Los Angeles from its most devastating disaster - once a giant question mark - seems assured. The temblor that severely damaged freeways, homes, apartments, and businesses has been followed by a kind of beneficent economic aftershock - the influx of up to $30 billion in federal and state assistance as well as insurance outlays.
Some 500,000 individuals and businesses have already received over $5 billion in federal aid, according to Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) records. And 90 percent of a $9.5 billion pool of private insurance money has been paid out, according to William Payton of AM Best Company, a New Jersey-based, insurance-tracking firm.
Larry Kimbell, head of the business forecasting unit at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles, anticipates an influx of capital for another one to two years. ``One thing is clear: There is no doubt that far from derailing the recovery that was beginning to take place [before Jan. 17, 1994], the quake is accelerating it.''
The $5 billion in federal aid paid out so far surpasses that after any previous US disaster and made Uncle Sam the largest mortgage lender in Los Angeles County last year, according to records. More than 92,000 buildings were damaged and 20,000 dwelling units had to be vacated.
Damage to public infrastructure and related emergency response costs now exceed $800 million. Direct economic losses, including damage to private property, exceeds $20 billion.
With the perspective of hindsight, the Los Angeles Times now says local and national responses were ``the most splendid emergency-assistance program in US history - far surpassing their reaction to the Loma Prieta earthquake or the Los Angeles riots.'' But a poll released this week shows that one-third of adults in communities close to the epicenter say their families' lives have not returned to normal, and one in four say they are worse off finanically.
Abandoned condos and apartment buildings may be the most visible problem one year later. Known as earthquake ``ghosttowns,'' such apartment complexes dot the landscape across the San Fernando Valley.
``Our condo association is stalemated on whether to demolish or retrofit,'' says Martha Squires, a condo owner on Moorpark Ave. ``In the meantime, all my money's tied up and I have to live somewhere else.''
A recent report released by Mayor Richard Riordan (R) declares that the government responded to the quake ``more quickly and more efficiently than ever before,'' but notes that ``as many as several billions of dollars in damages have still not been adequately addressed.''
Many residents and businesses are still filing claims with their insurance companies or with FEMA and the Small Business Administration. FEMA has provided about 400,000 people with an average $2,800 cash grant, and SBA has approved 115,878 home, personal and business loans.
``If there is a major lesson from this quake, it's that government doesn't have enough money to rescue everyone,'' says Judy Steele, an aide to Mayor Riordan. ``Individuals simply have to prepare themselves. You can't legislate earthquake readiness.''
Two dozen local seismic ordinances or upgrades have passed in the last year because of increased concern and awareness. But ``media and public attention is shifting to to other events from O.J. [Simpson] to Chechnya, to Washington,'' says Steele. ``The window of opportunity is closing.''