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Northridge Earthquake Anniversary: Quake readiness ranges widely at 'Epicenter U'

This is one in a weeklong series of stories on KPCC leading up to Friday's 20th anniversary of the devastating 1994 Northridge Earthquake. The series will explore the quake's history, its effects and its legacy. You can view more stories on our Northridge Anniversary page.  Let us know what you think on our Facebook page, on Twitter ("@" mention @KPCC)  and in the comments below.

As one of the first faculty members to arrive to at California State University, Northridge after the devastating 1994 earthquake that struck 20 years ago Friday, Cynthia Rawitch saw images that became seared into memory: Firefighters trying to control a blaze in the science lab. The insides of buildings shaken until bookcases fell over. Chairs tumbled.

The most unforgettable sight for Rawitch, then a journalism professor, was the concrete parking structure that had collapsed onto itself.

"Literally the steel girders were bent double," Rawitch said.

RELATED: Northridge Earthquake after 20 years

Up until that time, no other school had sustained as much damage from a natural disaster — more than $400 million. Some on campus remember its nickname after the quake — "Epicenter U." — the same name as a documentary about the event.

But go onto campus these days, where many employees who lived through the quake still work, and you'll find short memories and admittedly cavalier attitudes.

"You just kind of forget about it until the next ones comes," said Rayetta Esquibel, a long-time administrative assistant.

"Earthquakes don’t bother me that much," said Michael Whitener, who's worked in facilities for more than 30 years. "Now, bees and my wife do."

The school has an earthquake plan that involves large-scale campus evacuations, but employees have given their own arrangements at home less thought. After the last earthquake, Rawitch made sure to fill two barrels in her Northridge backyard with emergency goods. But then she forgot about them for the last two decades.

"I don’t think the batteries work anymore," Rawitch said. "I think the dog food may have exploded by now."

"The availability bias"

This kind of casual attitude about earthquakes isn’t surprising to Kate Long, who works on earthquake preparedness in the governor’s office of emergency services.

"There’s something called the availability bias," Long said. “Naturally as human beings, if something is visible to us, it seems more real. So right after an earthquake, we understand we should prepare."

But as time goes by, and there’s no major earthquake, urgency fades. And the risk seems less with each passing year. 

Mark Benthien of the Southern California Earthquake Center said minimizing risk almost becomes a coping mechanism for people living in an earthquake zone.

"It may be how some people know we can have big earthquakes here and and yet live here anyway because they say well, it’s not going to happen to me or I’ll be OK," Benthien said.

That's how Whitener feels: "I just figure I’ll be OK."

This is not to say that Whitener is ignoring the possibility of a earthquake. But his planning ahead doesn't extend much beyond keeping extra water and food at  home, and cash just in case ATM machines go down.

RELATED: KPCC's Earthquake Tracker app

Esquibel said the only thing she's done differently since the 1994 earthquake is keep tennis shoes in her car "just in case I'm stuck on the road and you have to walk a little bit."

Esquibel said part of attitude comes from the fact that earthquakes - albeit smaller ones - are a regular occurrence in southern California, and she credited local media with not sensationalizing them.

"In Latin American countries, they make a big to-do about it," Esquibel said. "It’s the way they announce it: Un terrimato, Los Angeles!"

As a result, Esquibel said, her friends who emigrated from Mexico tend to be more frightened of earthquakes.

Educators say part of their work with immigrants involves unteaching habits learned in other countries. Jean Paul Ampuero is a Cal Tech seisomologist who's won a National Science Foundation grant looking at ways to improve earthquake awareness among Hispanic communities.

“For example, running outside the house when there is shaking because the house is very likely to fall on you," Ampuero said. These instincts "don't make as much sense here in California because construction practices have evolved so much."

Growing up post-Northridge earthquake

With native Californians, earthquake educators say the struggle is motivating them to plan, especially those who’ve never been through a major tremor.

But on the Northridge campus at least, some of the people with the least amount of earthquake experience seem to be the most prepared.  

”I have a set of clothes in a bag next to my bed, ready to go at all times. It’s actually  under my nightstand," said Chelsea Turner, a 21-year-old English graduate student.

She said her car’s equipped with food, water and blankets, not to mention a first-aid kit -- a former Girl Scout, she wasn't going to forget that. Growing up post-‘94, she said, meant she had earthquake readiness drilled into her at school. 

“We live on a fault, we know it’s going to happen," Turner said. "When you study this as a kid, it probably does set in by the time you’re a young adult.”

Another student Jordan Helo, said she was only a toddler during the 1994 earthquake. But she's heard stories about it, and has thought of everything when it comes to being ready. She keeps slippers by her her bed "so you're not running out of the house barefoot and stepping on anything."

"Learning where the gas switch in the house to turn that off was really important," Helo said.

It goes to show that age or experience doesn’t determine one’s earthquake readiness.  But there is one thing that seems to remind everyone to be better prepared:  anniversaries.

The fact that it’s been 20 years since the last major earthquake in Los Angeles has gotten Rawitch, now interim dean of the university’s communications school, thinking.

"Knock on wood, it hasn’t happened, which makes you calm but tells you something’s building up in there and we should even be less complacent than we are," Rawitch said.

She went home and checked on those trash barrels in the backyard. As she expected, most of the items were expired. But now she's motivated to fill them with fresh supplies so she’ll be ready for when the next big one hits.