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Quake Impact: It Depends on Where You Live

October 09, 1987|Judy Pasternak | Judy Pasternak is a Times staff writer

In the western sections of Los Angeles County, from the coastal cities to the San Fernando Valley, last week's earthquake was for many the stuff of chatter on sidewalks and in hallways, little more.

Oh, there was that jolt in the shower, the shaking bed. Scary, but over in half a minute. Later, assessing the damage: A framed photograph toppled over. A few files spilled open. A piece of crystal moved ever so slightly out of place.

The morning after the first quake, the lawyers at a Beverly Hills firm wondered why the temblor had so dominated the newspapers and television broadcasts, one associate later recalled. Was nothing else happening that day?

After the 5.5 aftershock, a Venice resident out for a boardwalk stroll said he'd been bothered more by a car crash outside his house 10 minutes later.

To them, and doubtless to countless others in the charmed precincts barely touched by the quake, the newspaper photographs of crumbling walls and sobbing victims had the faintly exotic tinge of pictures from another land, from bombed-out Belfast or Beirut.

For in Los Angeles, a sprawl so wide that an earthquake of magnitude can devastate one side of town and hardly budge the other, many residents cope by growing insular. They rarely stray outside their own familiar neighborhoods.

If you live in West Los Angeles and work in Century City, if you live in Hermosa Beach and work in Torrance, chances are you don't know anyone from Whittier, Rosemead or Alhambra.

So there was little to connect the ongoing routine in the untouched regions to the disastrous reports on the news.

Three deaths directly attributable to quake damage. Five fatal heart attacks that also may be linked to the sudden shaking. More than $137 million in damage. At least 2,200 rendered homeless.

The shards of glass and chunks of concrete on the streets, the plywood in place of shattered windows, the yellow caution tape stretched around doorways signaling, "Danger, do not enter."

That must have been another earthquake somewhere else. And in a way it was.

In the sections that were spared, it was easy to be flip.

"We don't allow earthquakes in the Colony," joked a screenwriter who lives in Malibu.

A cardiologist brunching at a Rodeo Drive cafe looked at the posh shopping mall across the street. "There are no cracks in the Rodeo Collection. What a tremendous relief," he said, mocking himself and the others around him. "The marble's intact."

It's not that no one from outside the San Gabriel Valley has offered aid. Area corporations and organizations are helping the Red Cross: Catholic Charities, for instance, and United Way.

But donations to those groups--the middlemen--still keep the true dimensions of the damage at arm's length.

Just outside Whittier, in the parking lot at California High School, half a dozen students were still feeling the temblor days later. And they'll continue to feel it for months and years to come.

A 17-year-old senior, Roberta Duran, said her house looks fine from the outside. But a network of cracks lines the interior walls. Her mother's 10-year-old collection of Depression glass and Hummels was destroyed. Her cat, Peanut, broke a knee.

Her twin brother, Robert, went Monday to his after-school job teaching jazz, tap and ballet only to be barred because the building was unsafe. Tuesday, the twins still faced hours of cleanup duty at home after class.

On the school wall, a white banner with a red cross points the way to the gymnasium where about 60 people sleep each night on green pallets under the basketball hoops. They can no longer stay in their homes.

Anna Maria Rios, a sturdy, compact woman, dressed in black, sought refuge in the gym Monday after spending four nights in a Rosemead park.

A native of Mexico who speaks only Spanish, she offered brief answers to questions about the quake that drove her from her third-story apartment. The dishes, the stereo, the TV, the VCR all crashed down. The floors and the walls opened up.

She didn't stop to take anything, just made sure her mother, her seven children and two grandchildren got out alive.

She could not go to her job ironing men's shirts because it's against shelter rules to leave the children unattended. She did not know how she will get the money together for a security deposit, or the first and last month's rent, for another place.

Her stoic calm broke, and she wept, partly in gratitude for the Red Cross shelter and partly in fear of the future.

To those whose lives went on as usual, she has a message: The earthquake wasn't just a minor mishap. "No, es mucho," she said. "Es mucho."

The shelter manager, Dick Carlsen, a 35-year Red Cross volunteer, has seen the pattern before.

"That's one of the things we've found," he said. "When people outside hear . . ., they don't really understand how bad it is. You really have to be here at 1 or 2 in the morning, seeing grown men in their jammies and their little stocking boots, afraid."

"Well," said Lily Cheneberger, another high school senior, "if this happened in Vermont, I'm sure we wouldn't get all hyped up."

But this earthquake happened here.

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