File photo: On Jan. 17, 1994, a 6.7 earthquake rattled Southern California from the epicenter in Northridge.

Former and current Santa Clarita officials reflect on 1994 Northridge earthquake

Picture waking up at 4:31 a.m. to several seconds of violent jolts, buildings collapsing and fires erupting left and right. Confused and scared, you reach for your cellphone to call someone or read an emergency push notification.

Except, you won’t be able to because it’s 1994 — an age when cellular phones were still considered “new” technology and smartphones were far from existing.

Thousands of Santa Claritans and Southern California residents experienced a 6.7 magnitude quake on the morning of Jan. 17, 1994, leaving them without power or readily-available information.

The temblor, caused by the sudden rupture of a hidden fault, resulted in 57 deaths and was reported as the costliest in U.S. history, with damage estimated at more than $20 billion.

While the epicenter was recorded in Reseda, a San Fernando Valley neighborhood, the Santa Clarita Valley experienced major damage, which left residents cut off from the rest of Los Angeles County as its main artery to the area, Interstate 5, collapsed.

The city of Santa Clarita, at the time, had just previously turned 6 years old since its establishment in 1987. It was new, but not inexperienced.

“Santa Clarita was only a few years old but I think that helped,” said Adele Macpherson, former emergency services manager. “Because we were so small and new, we had established great relationships with all these agencies on a regular basis so it was beneficial.”

The city, with a population of about 150,000 then, had in place emergency planning and training to educate the public years before the 1994 quake. Among community leaders teaching the public about safety was current Mayor Marsha McLean.

“From an emergency neighborhood program, so many families had already been prepared,” she said.

Without the use of modern-day technology, the city had established an effective communications and emergency operations center to keep the public informed and ready when aid arrived.

Just 30 minutes after the quake, the emergency operations center opened and communications to the county were made by an amateur radio group. Gail Morgan, former city communications manager, recalled setting up a 24-hour hotline to keep the public informed as well as heavily relying on simple items like whiteboards to provide staff with updates.

Not long after the earthquake, City Hall was deemed uninhabitable as a result of the shaking, causing employees to continue operations outside on the building’s parking lot.

“We set up tents in the parking lot and worked there 24 hours,” said Morgan. “It was a great way for people to see us in action and ask us questions.” Besides the hotline and help from the media, she recalled informing the public with updates by making copies of fliers and personally delivering them neighborhood by neighborhood.

“I remember saying, ‘Don’t turn your gas on,’ for example,” she said. “We had to communicate with people one way or the other when you don’t have internet or cell phones.”

Lack of water and transportation were among the toughest challenges staff tried to work for as a result of the natural disaster, said Macpherson. Through collaborations with multiple agencies, such as FEMA and L.A. County, however, the city set up a water station system for residents to pick up water, and a second Metrolink station opened, as ridership soared to more than 20,000 during its second week of operations.

Now in 2019, the city of Santa Clarita has updated its resources and emergency services should an earthquake or other disasters occur.  

“Today, our city is looked on as one of the most prepared cities and we have other cities calling us to get information on our (emergency preparedness) programs,” said McLean.

Donna Nuzzi, current emergency communications manager, said emergency standards constantly evolve, but Santa Clarita’s are up to code, matching those of law enforcement and other agencies serving the public.

“Post Northridge earthquake and 9-11, all communities prioritize safety and everyone now uses the incident command system,” she said. “This helps us be more effective and have a collective voice to put out the best information.”

Under an emergency, the city’s website turns into an emergency blog, where residents can access updates, safety tips and other important information. Even with a sturdy backup system, the city has designed its website so that out-of-state officials can access and continue updates should local staff be unable to.

The important thing to remember, said Nuzzi, is that “all of this technology and services are only as good as the people who can receive it. Make sure you are prepared, have portable chargers, and backup systems.”

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