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Orange County Voices : COMMENTARY ON THE QUAKE : Orange County Should Heed the Hard Lessons of Devastation : Residents must not ignore the tragedy to the north. The impact will be felt throughout the region and add to the woes that followed the 1992 riots and November brush fires.

January 23, 1994|MARK BALDASSARE and CHERYL KATZ | Mark Baldassare, chair of UC Irvine's Department of Urban and Regional Planning and Cheryl Katz, research associate, are co-directors of the Orange County Annual Survey at UCI. and

Last Monday, Orange County residents woke up wondering if the nightmare they had long-feared had come true.

An earthquake shook our homes and, once again, rattled our sense of security about living in this region. But fears soon subsided as people learned the epicenter was elsewhere and the county was spared serious damage.

One thing that we cannot afford to feel in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy is complacency. The San Fernando Valley and Orange County have much in common. Though the epicenter was in Northridge, there will be a local impact that we need to prepare for, and lessons to be learned for our future.

The quake is a serious blow to our weak regional economy. Recently, signs of increased housing and retail sales provided a glimmer of hope that residents would start spending and employers would start hiring again. Now, the recovery is on hold as cautious residents and businesses assess the damage and rethink the future.

The disabled freeways will disrupt our close economic ties with Los Angeles County. The many Orange County businesses with customers and suppliers in Los Angeles will find travel more difficult and costly now. And Orange County will also feel the impact of Los Angeles residents staying away from our theaters, malls, amusement parks and sports events. Restricted travel in the region will hurt everyone.

Also, the earthquake is yet another factor to give tourists thinking of vacationing here pause.

First there were the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Then there were the devastating brush fires last fall. Now the scenes of collapsed buildings and freeways will haunt us. The fact that the quake was in the Valley, and not in Orange County, is of little distinction to out-of-town visitors. We will now have to work even harder to attract tourists this year.

Finally, adding to the list of crime, job layoffs, air pollution and traffic congestion, the earthquake presents another reason for residents and business to question their future here. The horror people felt Monday morning could hasten their moves to nearby states. And national attention to Southern California's earthquake problem will make it more difficult for the state to recruit new businesses and workers.

What can we do in the short run? Make sure that state and federal officials do all they can to get the roads fixed and Los Angeles moving again. Become involved in joint ventures to repair the image and solve the economic problems of the region. Do what we can to restore tourism.

Here are some of the long-term lessons Orange County must learn from the earthquake, and some things we can do to help mitigate the effects of a future earthquake:

* We need to make sure that our multitude of city and county governments and agencies knows how to coordinate before and after an emergency. The Valley was largely spared the problem of fragmented governmental response because most of it is under the jurisdiction of the City of Los Angeles. But in Orange County, as the bickering surrounding the El Toro Marine Base closing shows, the various entities might work against each other in a crisis. Let's get the political understandings in place beforehand.

* We also need to avoid raised freeways and overpasses in future freeway planning, and make the reinforcement of existing freeways a high priority. Orange County could not afford to have the Santa Ana, San Diego or Costa Mesa freeways out of commission for a year.

* Other transportation modes must be developed in case our freeways fail. The BART System was critical to the economic survival of San Francisco after the Loma Prieta quake destroyed parts of the Bay Bridge. Similarly, Metrolink should help Los Angeles commuters cope. Orange County needs a backup system so that our economy won't stop if the freeways can't be used.

* Future developments should provide a good match between housing and jobs. Working close to home is a key to living in an environment where freeway travel may not always be possible. New housing near current work sites, and more workplaces near current housing, should be encouraged to ease our freeway dependence.

* Finally, we should make sure that our regional agencies don't allow "suburbs of suburbs" like the Antelope Valley, Santa Clarita and Moreno Valley to develop in the future. Residents have been trading long commutes for inexpensive housing at the urban fringe. But all of this depends on a freeway system that works. When routes are severed, as they have been north of Los Angeles, residents could find themselves with plunging housing values and no way to get to work.

While the Northridge earthquake was a tragedy, it could have been much worse. The quake struck in the early morning hours when few people were on the freeways or in the parking garages, shopping malls and office buildings that collapsed. But we need to face the fact that our great structures of steel and concrete are no match for Mother Nature. While there is nothing we can do to prevent earthquakes, we can do a better job of preparing for them in the future.

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