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Testimony from the 1994 Northridge Earthquake

By January 16, 2014

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It actually happened before 5 a.m. on 17 January 1994— a magnitude 6.7 thrust-fault earthquake in the Los Angeles area—but scientists are observing the 20th anniversary of the Northridge earthquake today at a Caltech symposium. Twitter users can see highlights with the #Northridge20 hashtag. And AGU blogger Austin Elliott has lots of links to follow in his review of the quake.

I was in Northern California and didn't know anything about it until my morning commute, but once at work I logged in to The WELL to find that someone had started a new topic in the "earthquake" conference shortly before 5 a.m. with this opening message: "A major earthquake has just occurred in the LA area. It lasted about 60 seconds and has knocked out power to the area. My girlfriend reports all her lamps fell over. A CNN reporter says that half the water in his swimming pool was thrown out of the pool by the rolling force of the quake. Hotels are being evacuated." As the host of that conference, I was obliged to ride the wave of messages all that day and the next. I even checked in at Usenet for news—this was at the dawn of widespread web service.

It was quite a day. Here's a sampling of what went down:

  • " all of the houses on my side of the street were shifted one to four feet off of their foundations. porches and fireplaces are rubble. fortunately no one was hurt. we are all picking up the pieces."

  • "Today's quake is about 50-100 times smaller than what the Big One will be."

  • "A log of #earthquake, if anyone wants it, is available via WWW.
    type lynx
    type G
    type http://www.seas.upenn.edu/~mengwong/irc.quake.txt"

  • "Forgot to mention that I got the wee-hours-of-the-morning phone call from Parental Units begging me to move out of California..... Well, it's tempting..."

  • "We just had a block meeting to see if everyone was ok for the coming darkness and to make sure we all know who we are. whatever ... it will be a long night. i feel like i have sea legs or something. can't really tell whether it's another aftershock or my frazzled nerves."

  • "ABC News reported a grand total of two arrests for looting. Items taken: two mis-matched mag wheels."

  • "I'll never forget the experience of being awoken by this quake and having to devote all my energy to placing one foot in front of the other to get through my room. Standing was, quite literally, an effort."

  • "Power was knocked out by the quake as far away as Canada. We could easily have had outtages here in the Bay Area."

  • "The normal day to day living in our complex infrastructures tends to blunt the raw edge of basic survival. This earthquake has brought me face to face with the terror and wonder of being alive."

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