At 4:30 a.m., on Jan. 17, 1994, Santa Monica residents were jolted from their sleep by the powerful shaking of the Northridge earthquake. This was the first earthquake to strike directly under an urban area in Southern California since the 1933 Long Beach earthquake and produced the strongest ground motions ever instrumentally recorded in an urban setting in North America.

The magnitude 6.7 earthquake occurred on a blind thrust fault more than 11 miles below the surface. And the shaking might have lasted for only 10 to 20 seconds, but it felt much longer for those who were there and experienced it.

Despite being located some 13 miles from the epicenter, Santa Monica experienced massive damage and the earthquake’s measured intensity was as large here as what was recorded at the epicenter near Northridge. As a result, Santa Monica suffered the second most damage per capita of any city impacted by the quake, after Northridge. Citywide, building loss was estimated at $250 million with more than 3,500 structures being either damaged or destroyed.

How could this earthquake, which was centered miles away from Santa Monica, inflict so much damage while sparing other nearby cities? It didn’t seem logical or even fair. Initially, seismologists were baffled as to why this occurred. But finally, after years of research, a clear but unusual picture began to emerge. The Northridge earthquake’s seismic waves shot in a number of directions, including directly south into the base of the Santa Monica Mountains where it struck a bowl-shaped dip or depression in the bedrock at its southern tip. And, like a camera lens focusing and intensifying sunlight, the depression intensified the passing seismic waves and then hurled them quite randomly toward Santa Monica.

Neighboring cities were somehow spared as the intense shaking collapsed buildings along Santa Monica Boulevard in Downtown and ripped apart apartment buildings and houses. It also caused fires north of Wilshire Boulevard.

In the days following the quake, Santa Monica would have more than 25,000 homes with little or no water, nearly 7,000 homes and businesses without electricity and 10,000 more without gas. And over the next few weeks the city experienced hundreds of aftershocks, many in the magnitude of 4.0 to 5.0 that kept residents on edge and further damaged or destroyed already compromised structures.

On the day of the earthquake, the Santa Monica Red Cross set up a shelter in the gymnasium at Santa Monica College that housed and, for nearly a month, fed more than 350 local residents who had lost their homes. Many of these people still had jobs to go to and each morning would climb out of their rigid aluminum cots, rinse off in the group showers and head to work.

And sleep didn’t come easy in the cavernous, packed gym, as the sounds of loud, rumbling snoring would erupt from different areas of the shelter and rattle through the gymnasium most of the night. One would also have to endure a sudden scream or the incoherent ranting of someone trapped in the middle of a vivid dream or nightmare. And at least once a night you could expect to hear someone’s foul attempt at humor by loudly breaking wind, which would be quickly answered by angry protests, demands for the perpetrator to be removed, and of course, scattered chuckles.

The constant barrage of aftershocks was particularly frightening to these people who were forced to take refuge in the shelter. One night, as a large aftershock began to rumble through the shelter, one of the Red Cross volunteers became unglued and screamed, “Run! It’s the 7.1! Run! Get out now,” and raced out of the shelter followed by a stampede of people behind him. Luckily, no one was injured in the panic but it was more than a few minutes before anyone wanted to return to the shelter — including the volunteer.

Eventually all those in the shelter found new places to live and it was closed down. And in the months following the earthquake the aftershocks slowed down to a trickle, and in about six months they had all but stopped. Over the next few years, the city slowly came back to normal as it rebuilt and moved forward.

Today, there are few signs of this powerful quake that ripped through a sleeping Santa Monica more than 17 years ago. Should we expect another one anytime soon? What are the odds? These questions are tough to answer. What we do know is that there are more than 200 known active fault systems under the Los Angeles basin that are capable of producing moderate-to-large earthquakes. And, since it is impossible to predict when or where the next big one will occur, it probably makes sense to be prepared now. Unfortunately, the Red Cross reports that it sells most its kits and supplies after a temblor — not before. Go figure.

The Northridge quake had special meaning for me, because it marked the beginning of my long association with the Santa Monica Red Cross.

I had quit my job a few months before in the hopes of finding something more meaningful to do with my life and had signed up for five days of training to become qualified as a disaster volunteer. Ironically, the classes were to begin on Jan. 17, at 9 am. When I was nearly knocked out of my bed at 4:30 a.m. by the earthquake, I dragged my dresser away from the door it fell against and drove over to the Santa Monica Red Cross.

When I pulled into the driveway I noticed that people were already standing there in the dark, in front of the building. When asked if there was anything I could do one of them tossed me a Red Cross shirt and a flashlight and told me to check out some fires that had been reported north of Wilshire.

I drove off and in a few minutes I came upon a group of about 40 people standing in front of a four-story apartment building with smoke streaming out of one of the windows. When I got to the crowd I was told that someone might still be inside. On hearing that, I went up to the front door and finding it locked, kicked it open. When a man asked if I was with the Red Cross, I looked down at my shirt and realized that I actually was with the Red Cross and told him to follow me inside.

We tromped up the stairs calling out loudly for anyone to let us know if they were still inside, and on the fourth floor I shined my flashlight on a woman who was lying in a bed and wasn’t moving. I gently nudged her and she responded by opening her eyes and blinking at me. When I learned that she was an invalid and unable to move, we picked her up and carried her safely down the stairs and out the building as aftershocks rattled through the wobbly stairwell. This experience was the beginning of a month-long crash course in disaster response with the Red Cross — one with no books, classrooms or course curriculum. And the lessons learned from this experience are still with me today.

Tom is a longtime Santa Monica resident who enjoyed a 10-year career with the Santa Monica Red Cross. Tom currently is a writer and disaster management and recovery expert. Send him some of your favorite pictures of Santa Monica and its landmarks. Maybe he’ll write a story about them. He can be reached at tomviscount@yahoo.com.

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