I Was a Northridge Earthquake ‘Displaced Student’

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Twenty-five years ago the Northridge earthquake destroyed my high school and upended our lives. Now, the recent reports of major fault activity leaving California vulnerable to another massive quake has rattled us again.

On Jan. 17, 1994 at 4:31 a.m., the Northridge earthquake hit like a bomb. Or, at least, that was how my 17-year-old imagination suspected a bomb blast would feel. It wasn’t like the other earthquakes. It didn’t rock or shake. It didn’t give us time to crowd in a doorway. Instead, it exploded with such sudden force that all I could do was hang onto my bed and hope that nothing heavy would fall on me.

Then, there was darkness, not just in the bedroom that I shared with my younger sister or the block in Northridge where my family lived, but seemingly across the vast collection of neighborhoods that make up the Valley. I hadn’t seen so many stars in the sky since my trips to an Armenian summer camp in the Sierra Nevadas a few years earlier. It was as if a massive section of Los Angeles had just been picked up and dropped into the middle of nowhere.

For the rest of the ’90s, and into the early 2000s, the earthquake question was often the first thing people asked when they found out I was from Northridge. What was it like? I learned pretty quickly how to tell the story. They wanted an earthquake as an action movie with a happy ending. And maybe it was; after all, I lived to tell the tale. But 25 years later, I go to bed wearing what resembles street clothes and keep shoes close to my bed. I cringe anytime someone mentions “earthquake weather” and get fucking pissed when people say things like, “We need an earthquake to get rid of the transplants.”

Aykui Alaverdyan walks over rubble after taking some of her belongings from her Hollywood Blvd. apartment building on January 20, 1994 that was destroyed in the Northridge earthquake. Thousands were driven from their homes. Photo by Tim Clary/AFP Getty Images.

I don’t really think about the Northridge earthquake unless another one hits, like the Ridgecrest quakes on July 4 and 5. It was the one on the evening of July 5 that resonated the most, with an intense rolling sensation that hit while my husband and I were eating dinner at an Armenian restaurant in Atwater, while the movie “Skyfall” played in Spanish on the TV. Even then, the memories don’t usually linger for longer than it takes to think, Am I supposed to get under a table for this one? Probably not.

There have been recent reports that the Ridgecrest quake essentially, activated a major fault in California capable of producing a massive 8.0 earthquake — and while I don’t fear earthquakes, I wouldn’t wish a quake of that magnitude on anyone either.

In the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake, Northridge Meadows, an apartment building a mile or so away from where I lived, crumbled and left 16 people dead. Portions of the CSUN campus, walking distance from my parents’ house, were destroyed. So was one of our anchors to north Valley life — the Northridge Fashion Center or “the Mall.” Among the ruins was Bishop Alemany High School in Mission Hills, where I was a junior at the time of the quake.

The Los Angeles Times referred to us as “displaced students.” We were 1,600 kids from across the San Fernando Valley, as well as some from Santa Clarita and Simi Valley, who spent our weekdays on a nondescript, mid-20th-century high school campus situated just east of the 405, in between a cemetery and a hospital. Most of the campus was damaged beyond repair. Walls buckled, windows shattered, chunks of the ceiling caved. “You could actually see the sky in the gym,” says Timothy Peeters, who was in the midst of his first year as a calculus teacher at Alemany. As word spread in the days that followed, it was with an understanding of how grim the situation would have been had the earthquake hit during school hours.

  • In the ’94 Northridge quake, approximately 60 people were killed, more than 7,000 injured and 20,000 were left homeless in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Ventura Counties. Pictured here is street and building damage in Northridge. Photos by Gary B. Edstrom.

Still, it didn’t take long for the school to get us back in class. Finals were canceled and the second semester began in early February across the street from the old campus, at what was then Our Lady Queen of Angels Seminary, situated behind the Mission San Fernando. Since there was not enough room for the entire student body at the new campus, the days were split into a morning session for juniors and seniors and an afternoon session for freshmen and sophomores. Most of the students remained at the Catholic school. Some didn’t.

On my 18th birthday, my friends and I started the day behind a fence at Granada Hills High School, waiting for a former classmate who transferred post-earthquake. We had the day off because Dec. 8 is also the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a Catholic holiday of obligation. Technically, that meant we probably should have been at church. Instead, we were helping a friend at a public school ditch class so that we could get lunch, smoke cigarettes and head down to an occult bookshop. We went to Sierra’s, a Mexican restaurant in San Fernando that no longer exists. Dessert came with a pink balloon that read, “Happy Birthday, Panchita” — my friend Angel still calls me Panchita.

Not long after the earthquake, Angel moved to Indiana but had returned to the Valley right before the start of our senior year of high school, when we were back in class on the new campus full-time. We talked about everything — a single conversation could jump from Siouxsie and the Banshees to animal rights to Bat Boy — but we never discussed the earthquake until I started work on this essay. “I honestly think that we probably never had this conversation because we didn’t want to,” he says. “I don’t think any of us really needed to be reminded of what had just happened.”

  • Many roads and highways, and approximately 114,000 residential and commercial structures, were damaged by the ’94 Northridge earthquake. Photo by Robert A. Eplett/FEMA.

When he was in Indiana, though, everyone wanted to talk about the earthquake. He even had pictures to show them. “People were amazed by it,” he says. Angel grew up in Sylmar, not far from where a portion of the 5 had collapsed. He recalls the screams, the smell of gas and the fires he saw in the north Valley as he went to check on his sister, who was pregnant at the time. The following morning, Angel and his brother-in-law went out on a newspaper route and he saw what happened to Northridge Meadows. “It looked like an accordion,” he says. There’s a bit of shock in his voice even now.

The earthquake was a communal experience. In the ensuing months, public fascination would turn toward other subjects — Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, Kurt Cobain, OJ Simpson — while we tried to adjust and rebuild. The stress of the quake was still there, you could hear it in the voices of adults every time someone mentioned FEMA, you could see it in the homes so broken that you wondered if the residents would ever come back and you could feel it with every aftershock that we acknowledged with a laugh.

From Sierra’s, we drove down to Ventura Boulevard, which had become one of our stomping grounds now that the Mall was gone. Undoubtedly, we would have passed through piles of rubble on the drive, but by December I had stopped noticing that. Tumbled chimneys and fallen walls were such a common sight that they blended into the landscape. And I had to turn my mind elsewhere — toward college applications, the new Suede album that drove me wild — just to keep myself from dwelling on the earthquake.

We stopped by the Psychic Eye to skim books that we didn’t buy and sniff our way through a collection of incense only so that I could decide on purchasing a package of the same scent I always got. I remember feeling a sense of peacefulness inside that store, maybe it was the way it smelled of essential oils and magic or the cross-section of spiritual icons existing together in one space. It soothed my obsessive mind.

When it comes to the earthquake, I remember less of the calamity and more of the friendships and communities that we formed in its wake. I think of the nights spent watching “Heathers” and “Dead Alive” while making zines, of the mixtapes we played while driving to Tower and Moby Disc and of that one birthday where everything seemed perfect, even if our surroundings weren’t.

Los Angeleno