January 17, 1994 – 4:31am
Twenty-five years ago today, a 6.7 magnitude earthquake, with its epicenter in Northridge, California, struck the region, knocking down walls, collapsing parking structures, crushing cars and buckling freeways.
In the span of mere hours, the city of LA was destroyed and thousands were in need. Jumping to action, the Red Cross called to action thousands of disaster volunteers, many of whom loaded their families into cars and drove them to safety, only to turn back around and drive to their local chapter to report for duty.
The Red Cross mobilized 15,000 volunteers and staff, served 1.7 million meals, provided shelter for nearly 22,000 people and provided mental health counseling to more than 40,000 affected Californians.
Now known as the Northridge Earthquake, this disaster claimed more than 50 lives and injured more than 8,000 people, and racked up as much as $50 billion in property damage.
Many of the businesses affected by the earthquake had to close their doors, never to reopen again. But one organization was open and has remained open for business –– The Red Cross.
Scott Underwood, Deputy Regional Disaster Officer for the Los Angeles Region, was a volunteer with the Red Cross at the time, in charge of coordinating disaster responses through the region, said he remembers thinking that this was no ordinary disaster response.
“[I awoke to] violent shaking, with no sense of direction, which means [we were] close to the epicenter of the earthquake,” Underwood said, eventually learning that his home was 4 miles from the epicenter.
After making sure his wife and two young children were secure, Underwood drove to Red Cross headquarters, then in downtown Los Angeles, maneuvering through damaged streets, avoiding downed powerlines, cracked pavement, and gushing fire hydrants.
The First 36 Hours
What any seasoned disaster responder knows is that the first step in responding to a disaster is “situational awareness” –– getting a sense of the scope of the disaster from damaged infrastructure, to tallies of the injured and displaced residents and the needs of the community.
It all takes time to access, yet in just the first 36 hours, the Red Cross had opened 16 shelters and service delivery sites throughout the San Fernando Valley.
However, service delivery was complicated by aftershocks that continued to ripple through the area, for hours, days, and even weeks.
“Everything was moving, not just during the initial event, but it just kept moving for hours,” Underwood said. “There were pretty sizable aftershocks; a week later, the big aftershock hit causing additional damage.”
With the city reeling and its residents in need, the most heartening response came from Red Cross volunteers, many of who came out of retirement to help friends, neighbors, and strangers.
“A lot of volunteers came in that we hadn’t seen for years and years and years,” Underwood said. “They secured their families and came in saying simply, ‘OK, what do you want me to do?’ ”
25 Years Later
Today, fewer and fewer Angelenos remember that fateful morning, even as a 3.0 magnitude earthquake rattled Northridge five days before the 25th anniversary.
Yet the message today remains the same as it did that day –– if you ask those who were there, those who remember last time the Big One hit:
“Regardless of the disaster, preparedness is preparedness,” Underwood said. “There are little differences fundamentally between an earthquake, a fire, or a flood. Your preparedness kit works in all those conditions. You’re being temporarily displaced or you need first-aid equipment or you need food because the supply chain is broken –– it’s the preparedness piece that matters most. It’s is getting ready for that next disaster and moving forward.”
In the 25 years since the Northridge Earthquake, the Red Cross and its partners have been working to prepare Southern California for the next catastrophic disaster and ensuring its residents are prepared.
“Get a Kit. Make a Plan. Be Prepared.”
This is the mantra of the Red Cross, as volunteers and staff extend their reach deeper into diverse communities throughout the Los Angeles region. From teaching preparedness in Spanish, American Sign Language, Tagalog, Korean, and Mandarin, to distributing emergency kits and first-aid supplies in grocery stores, schools, and businesses, Red Cross wants to make sure Southern California is ready for when, not if, the next one hits.
When a disaster strikes, it’s important to be your own first responder, because the first responders will not be able to get to you right away. Stockpiling food, water, and other emergency supplies also ensures that you will be able to take care of yourself and even your neighbors in the immediate aftermath.
A Glimmer of Hope
The Red Cross preaches preparedness in the face of all kinds of disaster, yet there are some scenarios even seasoned disaster responders don’t anticipate:
Underwood said as he walked out of his house minutes after the earthquake hit, looked up into the LA sky, and for the first time, saw millions of stars.
To learn more about earthquake preparedness, check out these Red Cross Earthquake Preparedness tips.