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Hearts of L.A. / How the Quake Rocked Our Spirits and Changed Our Lives : TAKING CHARGE : 'You have to always think positively.'

January 30, 1994|Richard Riordan | Riordan is mayor of Los Angeles.

Like everybody else, I was in bed when it started. And, even though I've been through so many earthquakes in California, it struck me as the strongest I've ever felt. So it scared me a little bit.

But then it stopped and my immediate thought was: "What do I do?"

I combed my hair, got on a sweat shirt and some jeans and took off. My home phones were out and so was the cellular phone in my car. So, first I drove myself to one of the police stations to establish communications. I realized almost immediately how bad things were because they weren't even revved up.

But while I was there, David Novak from my staff got hold of me. We talked and, after 10 minutes, I decided to take off for the emergency operations center below City Hall.

I went along the 10 Freeway, not realizing the bridge was out. I think I lucked out, because if I had gone 10 minutes earlier, I could have easily have been one of those 10 cars that went off there. But when I saw a truck turned around, it made me suspicious, and I decided to get off and go up La Cienega and along the surface streets.

In the emergency operations center, I started talking to people about traffic. Representatives of all the major city departments were there. I talked to the different ones about what we should be doing right away.

Then, in the middle of it all, I realized nobody had had any food, so I called the Pantry (a downtown restaurant owned by Riordan) and they delivered a couple hundred breakfasts.

The basic thought in my mind then and all day was: "What can we do in the short term--and in the long?" I made lists and everything. But I've learned that people in these situations seem to have an incredible ability to relax and think more clearly, rather than becoming scattered all over the place. When you relax like that, you essentially have an advantage over everybody else in transactions.

When I got downtown, I knew one bridge was down. I quickly found out there was a problem with the 118. At that point, though, we had only one confirmed dead person. Then it began to look like we had maybe 10 or 15 dead--and then, all of a sudden, this one apartment house had 16 people killed.

I stayed at the emergency center pretty much all of the first day. President Clinton called, and I talked to other people in Washington. I was networking with all kinds of people, making calls to people who could help in various areas. I knew, for example, that transportation was a big problem, so we called people in Caltrans and the MTA.

Finally, we got together and decided that Chief (Willie) Williams and I had to communicate with the public. So, at 4:15 in the afternoon, I took my first shower of the day--in cold water. Then I mixed hot coffee with a little bit of cold water to shave and went into my office. I stayed until about 10:30 p.m.

The next day, I went to Northridge. We went to Lanark Park in Canoga Park and one thing I realized was that we had no leadership there. I asked, "Who's in charge?" They didn't even have enough water. The park was full of people and there was nobody there you could hold responsible.

There were plenty of supplies around. It was just a matter of asking for it. So I went a little bit ballistic and got on the cellular phone right there and got hold of the president of the Parks and Rec Commission and asked if he'd get together with Jackie (Tatum, the department's general manager) and get some leadership going there so someone would be responsible.

Later, I went to the Northridge Meadows Apartments. First, I thought of those 16 families and the tragedy that they had suffered. It also occurred to me that the building looked almost like a child's playhouse that had been crumbled by an older brother or something. It was just an incredible amount of destruction. Fifty cars had been crushed and this building looked just like cardboard.

You know, in the face of something like that, there's a temptation to feel helpless. But you can't afford to be helpless in my spot. You have to always think positively, to say with each situation, "How could I make it better?"

The main thing is how do I get the best and the brightest people involved right away so whatever thoughts I have I can unload them on other people and go onto my next thoughts.

I really admire the people who work for this city. The Riordan axiom is: It's much easier to get forgiveness than to get permission. And I had several people who just went out and did it--like the transportation department people, who just commandeered some intersections.

Ultimately, though, the most rewarding is the general attitude of the population. I've said this time and time again, but I'm very proud to live in L.A. There are doomsayers all over the place, but that's not the typical resident of L.A. Our people are optimists; they're doers. They help and respect each other.

I feel this tremendous coming together and camaraderie, and I think it's just great.

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