The Northridge Earthquake at 20: Lessons Learned From a Day Nobody Will Ever Forget

Twenty years ago, southern California was rocked by the Northridge Earthquake that stands as one of the costliest natural disasters in United States’ history. Centered in Reseda, its impact was felt across the City as freeways, hospitals, schools were closed. Ruptured gas lines sparked hundreds of fires.  Power was unavailable.

The quake’s human cost was enormous.  It caused some 57 deaths, 8,700 injuries and 1,600 hospitalizations. And more than $20 billion in damage.

No one who lived through it will ever forget it, and our collective memory of it helps define us as a City. For me, it touched off the legislative effort to bring $14 billion in federal aid to the San Fernando Valley, and a lifelong commitment to promoting disaster preparedness in my community.

A row of cars is crushed beneath a collapsed apartment building in Canoga Park. (Los Angeles Times)

It’s been said the earthquake was felt as far as Nevada. I know it was felt as far away as Washington DC.  That’s where I was when I received a call from a friend at CNN who told me “your district is collapsing.” You see, I was working for Congressman Howard Berman, who represented the San Fernando Valley at the time.

With his District Office red-tagged, Howard set up shop in the old San Fernando jail, distributing water and supplies to Valley residents in need while helping to coordinate a massive relief effort involving every level of government. A seasoned legislator, he was the point person for the San Fernando Valley relief bill, and in Washington, I dropped everything to focus on that important work. Putting the bill together was an intense and challenging experience but with the help of the late Congressman Julian Dixon, the top ranking California Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and others, we prevailed.

Getting the money was just part of the equation, another quotient involved actually delivering the aid. I had the privilege of working very closely with the staff and leadership of FEMA, including former Director James Lee Witt, who I just reminisced with yesterday at the Northridge 20 Symposium. This was not the FEMA which was slow to respond to Hurricane Katrina; with Congressman Berman pulling the levers in Congress, a veritable alphabet soup of local, state and federal government agencies quickly coordinated together to ensure that predictions of gloom and doom in the San Fernando Valley would never come true, piecing together what would become the largest ever disaster relief package to that date.

We rebuilt. And we’re stronger than ever. 

But there is no substitute for a measure of self-reliance during an emergency. That’s why in my own district, I put together a group of committed local leaders to raise awareness and identify disaster preparedness solution that we can pursue together. 

Started during my time representing the San Fernando Valley in the California State Assembly, It’s called the Emergency Preparedness Community Action Team.

One of its objectives: to get more residents trained to help first responders in disaster situations through the Fire Department’s CERT Program. Each year, some 4,000 Angelenos get CERT training. These volunteers work on the front lines, keeping us safe in the event of an emergency. I want to double our numbers.

LAFD created this amazing program back in 1986. Getting CERT training is free and requires about 17 hours of training from LAFD.

This week, as we reflect on that day 20 years ago, the efforts we’ve undertaken to be more prepared for the next disaster, and the steps still to be taken, please remember: It’s not a matter of “IF,” but “WHEN.” If you’re interested in finding out more about joining my Emergency Preparedness Community Action team, or getting CERT trained, please head to or contact my Public Safety Deputy, Erik Rodriguez at (818) 774-4330.

There’s a famous saying about “the best laid plans of mice and men.” No one planned for the devastation and destruction of January 17, 1994. But that day, and the years of rebuilding that have followed taught us all valuable lessons—about cooperation, community and loss. Today we are a better prepared, more vigilant Los Angeles. Our progress has been good. But for me and many remember what happened that day, today’s anniversary is a stark reminder of our continued vulnerability as a quake-prone City and of our duty to do more. No one can prevent the next disaster, but we can work together to minimize the toll it takes on our family, our friends and our Valley.

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