Thursday, December 26, 2013

An Incident at Fukushima Daiichi, Part 1, the Sylmar & Northridge Earthquakes

   On  January 17th, in 1994 I was working as the residence manager at the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center in Pasadena, California. At precisely 4:31 (PST) that morning my little room began to shake, and the books on the top shelf of my closet fell to the floor. That’s the extent of the damage I suffered from what is now known as the Northridge Earthquake. The earthquake lasted anywhere from 10 to 20 seconds, and had moment magnitude (the successor to the Richter magnitude scale) of 6.7, which is a pretty hefty earthquake by anyone’s standards. I had survived the Sylmar Earthquake 23 years previously, which was a 6.5 on the Richter scale, lasting approximately 12 seconds. Richard Nixon was president at the time (a California native, he experienced a quake of his own in Long Beach in 1933) and Ronald Reagan was governor. I survived by sleeping through it (the quake occurring at 42 seconds after 6:00 in the morning) with the family dog, Buttons, a long, brown dachshund, sleeping with me, firmly established in between my outstretched legs. The epicenter of that quake was some where north of Sylmar and south of Santa Clarita, in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, at 34° 25' N, 118° 24' W,  at a depth of about 5 miles, about 10 miles from my bedroom in Sepulveda, which is now called North Hills, in the San Fernando Valley, adjacent to Northridge to the west. The immediate effects of this quake was to cause my asshole stepfather to abandon his family and run out of our house completely naked. It also caused 6 foot waves in our swimming pool, threw a lot of our dishes in the kitchen onto the floor, and created a few cracks around the house. There was some worry that the Van Norman Dam (the southern terminus of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, supplying drinking water to the city) to the north of our house, might rupture, spilling 3.6 billion gallons of water into the northern parts of the valley, where of course my house was located. Accordingly we were evacuated for 4 days (along with 80,000 other residents), until the water level could be lowered, thereby relieving pressure on the lower dam. We spent this time at our family’s friends Todd and Johnny’s house (their daughter used to babysit me and my sister). Fortunately the dam held, was repaired, and we had a house to come back to after the evacuation ended. The majority of the 58 to 64 deaths (the number depending on what is considered attributable to the quake, such as heart attacks initiated by the quake) that were attributed to the earthquake resulted from the structural failure of several health care facilities, such as the Olive View Medical Center in Sylmar, and the San Fernando Veteran’s Hospital, in San Fernando (which lies adjacent to Sylmar, and where 36 patients died and 10 staff members) along with roadway failures and the collapse of several major freeway interchanges. 2,543 were injured, with damage estimates anywhere from $553 million to several billion (first 3 pictures above, Veterans Hospital, freeway overpass, Van Norman Dam).
   My dear mother, after divorcing my asshole step father, would marry again and actually move to Sylmar with my dear sister, where I would visit her upon occasion. She and my sister would later abandon me altogether by moving to Bullhead City in Arizona where they don’t have earthquakes. 
   At least not yet.
   Now getting back to the Northridge quake, well that’s a whole different matter. 
   The Northridge Earthquake of 1994 was not centered in Northridge. The epicenter’s coordinates are given as 34°12′47″N 118°32′13″W 11MD, which as every 4th grader knows, lies between Arminta St. and Ingomar St. just west of Reseda Blvd, at a depth of 11 miles, in the city of Reseda, which is directly south of Northridge (see map above). Peak ground acceleration is a measure of how hard the earth shakes in a given geographic area. The Northridge quake’s  ground acceleration was one of the highest ever instrumentally recorded in an urban area in North America, measuring a whopping 1.8g (16.7 m/s2), and felt as far away as Las Vegas, Nevada, about 220 miles away from Reseda and Northridge. 33 people died immediately or within a few days from injuries sustained in the earthquake. The exact number of deaths is unknown but estimated to be between 60 to 72 (again counting some who died of cardiac arrest which was directly related to the quake), with the official count at 57. Overall fatalities were minimized due to the early hour of the quake, and also because that day, a Monday, happened to be a federal holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Earthquake damage occurred within a radius of 85 miles (although damage must have been minimized (despite the freeway damage) to a degree as because of the Sylmar earthquake, building codes had been updated and older non-compliant buildings refurbished), affecting the cities of Santa Monica, Simi Valley, and good old Santa Clarita. Approximately 8,700 were injured including 1,600 who required hospitalization. 11 hospitals suffered structural damage, some unusable after the earthquake. The Northridge Fashion Center, what we locals referred to as the Northridge Mall, where I first saw the Steven Spielberg film “E.T.,” was severely damaged, as was the California State University, Northridge (CSUN), where I used to go frolicking as a young boy. 16 people, who mostly lived on the 1st floor, were killed as they slept when the Northridge Meadows apartment complex collapsed on top of them (the 5th, 6th, and 7th picture above depict the Meadows apartments, the Bullock’s department store in the Northridge Fashion Center, and a parking structure at CSUN). The Newhall Pass interchange of the Golden State Freeway and the Antelope Valley Freeway, collapsed as it had in the Sylmar quake 23 years before, even though it had been rebuilt with improved structural components. Because it was dark when the earthquake occurred, LAPD motorcycle officer Clarence Wayne Dean did not realize the Newhall Pass elevated connector from southbound 14 to  the southbound I-5 had collapsed, and was not able to stop before falling to his death 40 feet to the ground. When it was rebuilt again one year later, it was renamed the Clarence Wayne Dean Memorial Interchange in his honor. The scoreboard at Anaheim Stadium collapsed onto several hundred seats below. Fortunately the stadium was empty at the time. The quake caused fires and landslides. It was just an awful mess with some estimates of total damage ranging as high as $25 billion making it one of the costliest natural disasters in United States history.
   Those who were beneficiaries at the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center in Canoga Park (see map above) were forced to join the relief efforts or face termination from their program and be booted out to the streets. That always seemed fairly heavy handed to me. 
   Despite all of the loss of life, despite all of the damage, despite waking Buttons up in 1971, and knocking my books to the floor of my closet in 1994, all this was like a trip to Disneyland, Magic Mountain, and Knotts Berry Farm on your birthday, compared to what happened at 14:46 JST (Japan Standard Time) (09:46, Thursday PST) on the 11th of March, 2011, a Friday afternoon. What happened is referred to as the Tōhoku earthquake, and the tsunami that followed about an hour later.
   Compared to Tōhoku, Sylmar and Northridge were a walk in the park.

To be continued.

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