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Northridge Earthquake Anniversary: Are quakes the price Californians pay for paradise?

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KPCC's Patt Morrison writes with a commentary on earthquakes, the weather, the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and how the rest of the America looks at California.

It's worse when it's dark, and it was dark at 4:31 in the morning on Jan. 17, 1994.

Sometimes you hear an earthquake before you feel it, that grind and rumble that wakes you up just a moment or two before the bed starts to dance beneath you — for 10 seconds, 20 seconds — and if you can grab a lamp and switch it on, then you can see the pictures banging against the walls, and everything around you is a cacophony of creaking and popping and jingling, the sirens and the dogs start wailing at the same moment, the wine glasses are smashing themselves in the kitchen, and the alarms on a million cars are going nuts.

Then it stops, 20 seconds or 30 or a minute later. And that's our trade-off. A half-minute of hell every now and then for a lifetime of paradise.

And then the moralizing begins. From the East Coast, from abroad, from the envious and the smug, we hear that earthquakes are divine retribution for the California lifestyle — payback for backyard swimming pools and sunshine and Hollywood, our souls' ransom paid to a devil in Ray-Bans.

They say that a California earthquake is penance — the one in 1994 killed at least 57 people — and yet no one looks at the brutal winters that torment the East and the Midwest every year. No one says those people were asking for it. The frozen pipes, the paralyzing cold — that's their punishment for having lilacs in the spring and fireflies in the summer and brilliantly colored leaves in the autumn.

Oh, no. The long, predictable slog of winter miser — of people dying from the cold, from icy car crashes and snow-shoveling heart attacks — that's just weather. The haphazard terror of an earthquake? Now that's the punishing hand of Providence.

And it's true that in a tornado, you go to the cellar. In a flood, you go to higher ground. In an earthquake, we just go along for the ride. Afterwards, we tell ourselves we'll be better prepared the next time, and to paraphrase Winston Churchill, we find a kind of exhilaration in coming out of that primal shaking unscathed. When two earthquakes rattled the Portola expedition on the same day in August 1769, Juan Crespi coolly noted in his diary that the soldiers bagged an antelope for dinner. Quote — it was not bad.

A couple hundred years later, Steve Martin was just as blasé in his movie "L.A. Story." When an earthquake strikes a group during brunch, the conversation goes on — Martin's character casually estimates the quake to be about a 4.0 on the Richter scale.

But here's the paradoxical thing about the '94 earthquake: Somehow, it helped L.A. to recover from the riots of less than two years before.

The riots shook the civic spirit in a way the earthquake didn't. The earthquake gave L.A. a way to pull itself back into shape, to push itself toward a shared purpose. The earthquake wasn't Providence punishing us, but in the riots, we punished ourselves. 

The state's historian, Kevin Starr, told me back then that, "there's something depressing about an urban riot because that shows human failure. But an earthquake is an act of God." 

And it gave L.A. the chance to show its nobler self in a natural disaster, so soon after the failings of a man-made one.

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.

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