Northridge Earthquake

By Barbara Lewis, Special to the Van Nuys News Press

When I was president of a homeowners’ association in 1993, I helped to organize the Emergency Preparedness Plan for the community. I felt that I was well prepared personally for an earthquake; however, at 4:31 a.m. on January 17, 1994, I found out just how unprepared I really was.

This is my story:

  1. I was thrown out of bed, landing several feet away. I rolled under the bed as two dressers fell over, crashing close to my head and my body. Make sure that if your bedroom furniture topples or pictures fall off the wall, they don’t come down on your bed or too near your bed.

    Northridge Earthquake
    Northridge Earthquake
  2. I grabbed a flashlight located in the drawer next to my bed. It was in one of the few drawers that was operable. Nearly every drawer couldn’t be opened, because the metal tracks had bent. Keep your flashlight in a safe and accessible place — not in a drawer. Now, one of my flashlights is under my mattress and the others are strategically located in the rooms and hallways.
  3. One of my first priorities was to find my eyeglasses, an almost impossible task when your vision is poor and when you’re surrounded by rubble. Keep eyeglasses in a hard case and have an extra pair in the car.
  4. As I searched for my earthquake shoes that I kept under my bed, I realized that they had moved and were under the dressers and a pile of other items on the floor. Keep shoes wedged in your bed.
  5. When I couldn’t locate my shoes, I immediately tried to open the sliding closet doors to find another pair. I discovered that all sliding doors were jammed and unable to be opened. The contents had been thrown against the doors, causing the doors to come off the tracks. The regular doors were also inoperable since their frames had shifted. Don’t keep emergency equipment in closets with sliding or regular doors. What I Learned From The Northridge Earthquake By Barbara Lewis
  6. As I reached my bedroom door, I found that it, too, had jammed. Luckily, I was able to exit through the bathroom door into the hallway. Have an alternate escape route out of your bedroom. I have chain ladder under the bed now.
  7. As I threaded my way through the debris, my flashlight could illuminate only a small area where I was placing each foot. Use power failure lights that illuminate rooms and hallways when the electrical power is off. You’ll be able to see and then unplug the lights and use them as flashlights. Several people told me later that their power failure lights did not work because the switch was in the wrong position. They suggested that perhaps cleaning people had unplugged and turned off the devices for vacuum equipment and then did not switch back to the correct position. Periodically check the switch on your power failure lights.
  8. When I reached the front door, I slipped into a pair of shoes that I kept there and grabbed from the floor the gas shut-off wrench that had been hanging on a hat rack. The hot water heater and the stove had separated from the wall and the smell of gas was overpowering. Keep your gas wrench at the front door or near the gas valve.
  9. I headed for the outdoor gas pipe with a neighbor and after the gas valve was closed, we still smelled gas. The previous year I had corralled a gas meter reader into showing me which valve to turn and how to do it. However, some of my neighbors reported that their gas valves were “frozen” and couldn’t be moved. Have a gas company person show you the valve and check the ease of turning the valve. Then label it, so that so if you’re fumbling around in the dark or in a state of panic, you will know which valve should be turned.
  10. My car was well-stocked with emergency equipment such as extra clothes, a jacket, shoes, first aid kit, fire extinguisher, water, etc. I wanted to get my jacket and a first aid kit for neighbors who were bleeding, but I needed car keys. I kept my keys hanging on a hook in the closet. The sliding door of the closet was slightly ajar, but couldn’t be moved. The keys were not on the hook. Luckily, I found them in a heap of items on the closet floor. Keep an extra set of car and house keys outside your home.
  11. When I wanted to call my family inLos Angeles, I got a busy signal. Designate an out-of-state telephone number that scattered family members, who may have vacated their residences, can call in an emergency. (Oftentimes, out of state numbers are not busy).
  12. But what if my emergency preparedness items had been inaccessible, similar to the experience of several people I know? I’ve decided to outfit a large jacket with many pockets for all emergency equipment and items that I’ve mentioned, and hang it by the front door.
  13. Then the cleanup began and this brought to my attention several other matters. Have heavy work gloves for picking up glass, which easily shreds plastic bags. Also keep on hand at least one large box that can be used for broken glass.
  14. As I began the arduous search for important papers, such as insurance, checkbook, etc. that had been neatly stored in my office, I realized that finding the papers was nearly impossible. Keep important papers in a large container that is securely closed so it won’t open during an earthquake, but that you can easily spot in room piled high with rubble.
  15. I needed tools to pry open drawers and doors. Stock a tool chest and don’t keep it in a closet.
  16. Almost every piece of furniture had toppled over. Secure furniture to the walls with L-shaped brackets.
  17. Nearly all of my china was broken, although I had kept everything on bottom shelves near the floor. Much of the china had vibrated in place and had broken. Now, all of my china has thick paper plates between items. Use locks for cabinets containing breakables, so the items are not thrown out onto counters and floors.

Unfortunately, almost half of the people, who died from the 1994 Northridge earthquake, suffered heart attacks. When the violent pounding began and I thought I was going to die, my heart was racing. But I started to pray and then suddenly felt very calm. Thirty seconds later, I crawled out from under the bed and thanked God that I was alive.

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