Living in the Dark

For many residents, the L.A. quake knocked out electricity and other pillars of modern existence

BEHIND the headlines and TV images of destruction, Quake Week 1994 in the San Fernando Valley is a study in shifting life premises and priorities, as well as terrain.

In a few dark seconds we were rudely jolted from sleep to find the entire contents of our house dumped unceremoniously into our lap and living room. From crockery to pictures, all was shattered. Then, even more unsettling, we found that the quake that struck Los Angeles earlier this week had knocked out all the pillars of modern life.

Phone for help? No phone. Check for loved ones? No sunlight (it's 4:31 a.m.), no artificial light (power is off), no access to stairs and hallways (fallen bookshelves, overturned couches, piles of shattered glass). Light a candle? Strictly forbidden because of natural gas leaks. Car phone? Find the car keys if you can.

Finding mine took 20 minutes. They had been jangled off their usual perch into the next room under a pile of broken and bleeding cologne bottles. Led by starlight over a felled bookshelf at the end of our bed, I made it outside to the car once (no phone receiver), twice (no battery), three times (no cigarette lighter adaptor), before dialing to achieve no access due to too much phone congestion.

Still, there were a few moments of humor amid the chaos. Standing in the doorway on Monday, with the kitchen three feet high in shattered glass and debris, my three-year-old looked at me with apologetic eyes and said, ``Daddy, I didn't do that.''

Faced with chaos, buoyant Angelenos forged ahead. Even the reluctant were forced into survival mode. But both found the predicates of normalcy had been overturned. The inconveniences caused by the earthquake are far more than I would have imagined.

Daylight brought flowing water in the streets but not in my house; hence no showers, drinks, or toilets. Monday evening brought a 5:30 p.m. curfew, forcing me back into the house with no heat, light, water, or power; hence no TV or radio unless it's battery operated. I had to endlessly quash the knee-jerk response that there are, of course, stores with these amenities to sell. ``The quake hit them too, dummy.''

Next come the chicken-and-egg questions: Do you first buy the batteries to put into the radio or do you have to listen to the radio to find out which stores are open and selling batteries? Do you get cash from an automated-teller machine to buy the batteries or do you need the batteries to run the radio and find out which ATMs, if any, are still open?

Perhaps the hardest part of Quake Week '94 was that the shaking never seemed to stop. At least 200 aftershocks hit the L.A. area. Picking up in the midst of major aftershocks is like shoveling the sidewalk before the snow stops: a study in futility.

After an hour of clearing one room to re-stand a major bookshelf, a second temblor, measuring 5.7 on the Richter scale, hit our house like a Mack truck. That left me with a gnawing dilemma: Should I leave the bookshelf standing while I transferred the battery from the radio to the flashlight to provide enough light to secure the shelves to the wall? Or should I simply leave the bookcase on the floor and head to the store for more batteries and flashlights?

While Angelenos coped with similar problems, they were inundated with a flood of out-of-town phone calls once service was restored. Parents and relatives called from Maine to Florida to describe in great detail the full extent of damage to my neighborhood and city - information broadcast to them but blacked out to me.

This is all to the good. Being informed is the job of any good newsman on the scene in a crisis. You might say it`s another premise of modern life.

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