Local leaders reflect on 30th anniversary of quake that struck Jan. 17, 1994
Jan. 17, 2024, marks 30 years to the day since the costliest earthquake in U.S. history, a magnitude-6.7 event, struck at 4:31 a.m.
While the epicenter was identified as being in Northridge — and the heaviest damage was in the western San Fernando Valley — the quake also devastated the neighboring Santa Clarita Valley, leaving many even decades later discussing how the natural disaster continues to impact the community, local attitudes and even statewide legislation.
The death toll was ultimately counted at 72 lives, according to the U.S. Department of Conservation, which valued the economic impact at more than $60 billion.
More than 22,000 residents, including a countless number living in Santa Clarita, were displaced.
“What I remember most are the losses we experienced as a county,” said 5th District Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose district includes the Santa Clarita Valley. “We also lost (Los Angeles Police Department) Officer Clarence Wayne Dean, when his motorcycle drove off a section of the freeway that had just collapsed at the Newhall Pass.”
The disaster is still relevant today, she said, and serves as a reminder that SCV residents “live in earthquake country.”
This week, The Signal invited a number of current and former local leaders who lived in or near the relatively new city of Santa Clarita, which had just had its sixth birthday the previous month, to reflect on their memories of that day 30 years ago.
Mayor Cameron Smyth was away at college when the earthquake struck, having just returned to his apartment in Northern California where he received news of the disaster. He missed being in the SCV by about 12 hours, he recalled.
“The first thing I saw was that the freeway interchange had collapsed,” he said, referring to the infamous image of the structural failure that led to Dean’s death.
“Maybe an hour later I finally got a call from my parents, and I was able to be in touch with them,” he added.
“Really, what I remember most is how Santa Clarita came together to take care of one another,” he said, adding some people couldn’t go back to their homes and others didn’t feel safe doing so.
“I was in bed sound asleep, and I heard this noise, and I honestly thought my house had been bombed, it was so loud,” said former City Manager Ken Pulskamp. “Pretty much everything in my house was broken that could break.”
He also shared his recollections about how people came together to solve problems as they arose, such as a significant water shortage.
Pulskamp said that, in another sense, there were silver linings, as the disaster provided an opportunity for the city to get funding that expedited the construction of a Metrolink station and the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Valencia.
It was really the city’s first test, and bolstered its mindset for disaster preparedness, Smyth said.
Gail Morgan (Ortiz), who was spokeswoman for the city of Santa Clarita at the time, said she was asleep in her bed at her Canyon Country home when the earthquake struck.
In the immediate aftermath, the city looked “like a war zone,” she recalled, with crumbling walls and fires at every turn.
She said the event still serves as a reminder of why it’s a good idea to have a “go” bag with things like batteries, flashlights and water at the ready just in case.
City Councilwoman Marsha McLean said she’s still grateful her husband was running late for work that morning, otherwise it’s more than likely he would have been on the infamous overpass, she said.
At the time of the quake, McLean was a volunteer with a group that went around and spoke about disaster preparedness, she said.
“We actually had earthquake preparedness supplies, which I was very grateful for,” she added. She said now such preparation is much more commonplace, and the 1994 earthquake is part of why.
“We are a much safer city now,” she said referring to a lot of the retrofitting that took place in the years since.
It’s also a constant reminder about where Santa Clarita Valley residents are in terms of their proximity to a potential disaster.
“Another can strike at any time,” Barger added. “We need to be ready.”
Gallery below: Signal file photos from the earthquake of Jan. 17, 1994.