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Hearts of L.A. / How the Quake Rocked Our Spirits and Changed Our Lives : COPING WITH CHAOS : 'All in all, we were spared any major damage.'

January 30, 1994|Jerry Podany | Podany, 43, the head of antiquities conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, lives in the Larchmont area of Los Angeles. He and his wife, Amanda, have a 4-year-old daughter

It was definitely the worst shaking I had ever felt. The first thought, of course, is just for the safety of the family. But early on, in a separate part of my brain, I was concerned about the museum's collection. Anytime there's an earthquake, a part of me thinks about the efforts we've made and the objects at the museum, trying to envision what I might find. We have objects there that are priceless.

We've worked with seismic engineers for more than 12 years now, devising methods to secure our pieces in the event of an earthquake. We've even put our pieces on shake tables to make sure they'll remain stable. Some of the pieces are designed to roll, others are tied down. But you never know whether those methods will work until the real thing happens.

I received a phone call from the museum within about 40 minutes of the quake. We had an initial report that four items were partially damaged, but that we were spared major damage.

Once I felt that my family was calm and our home secure, I got in touch with Bruce Metro, who prepares museum pieces for display. We met at La Brea and Pico and drove in separate cars. When we got to Pacific Coast Highway, we had to weave around all these huge landslides. There were these huge boulders all around and furniture in the road from that one house that slid down the hill.

I remember thinking, "What are these people doing taking pictures?" But I guess that's just our nature. That, in a very surreal way, added to the anxiety because it was an implication that things were very severe, much worse than I thought when I was at my home.

I was thinking about the whole collection. We had just remounted a couple of very fragile, large terra cottas, and I was wondering how they did.

When we got to the museum, they had already cordoned off areas of the museum where pieces were lying around, so no one would walk through them. They had noted objects that needed to be made secure in case of aftershocks. We had practiced this once a year, in the event of an earthquake, and it was surprising how quickly the plan kicked into gear.

We then headed off into the galleries and began the walk-through.

One part of me was in an automatic mode that doesn't have time to feel anxious. We had a plan in place so that we didn't go helter-skelter through the museum, worrying about specific things and ignoring others. But another part of me was concerned about those areas of the museum I hadn't gotten to.

Two sculptures, both marble, were damaged. One was a bust of a boxer that had a small chip on the back shoulder. It had rotated on its mount and come in contact with the pedestal. The other was a Roman head, part of a life-size figure, that jettisoned to the floor.

Two vases in the antique collection downstairs were damaged. One fell over and broke. It was a nice clean break. And a small, dish-like vase was cracked when another vase fell on it.

All in all, we were spared any major damage. And being familiar with these objects and all the efforts that have gone toward saving them, I felt very proud.

Of course, any damage to these pieces is terrible. It doesn't really matter about their market price; they're all invaluable.

In one sense, the light of day made things better because, like everybody else, I feel much more in control of my environment in the light. But later as I made my way to our Wilshire office in Santa Monica, the devastation that had occurred began to sink in.

Somebody asked me, since this was an earthquake-prone area, should an art collection of such value be kept here? Well, where would you put it where it wasn't going to face potential danger? Are we going to deny ourselves of these beautiful pieces because of earthquakes?

My commute is a nightmare now, but the other night after I finally made it home, I wanted to take a bit of a breather. I wandered into my back yard for a few minutes. I was stressed out, I guess from the commute, which for me has gone from 45 minutes to about 2 1/2 hours.

I was really feeling a little wound up about the city, mostly from trying to drive through this mess. But I looked up and a blimp was going overhead. And instead of the usual beer or suntan oil advertisements, it was flashing out locations and telephone numbers for assistance and shelter. In English and Spanish, it was flashing a message about not using open-flame candles in the house in case there was a gas leak.

I suddenly had this really clear sense of how prepared L. A. was. With all these disasters happening one after the other, one could imagine that after suffering all of that, and then a big earthquake, that the city could have just fallen apart. But here the city had put all of this effort, which obviously had taken a long time to plan and think of. The city was taking care of its people.

That blimp, probably more than anything, really expressed the concern the city had for all of its people, people who didn't have power, people who didn't have telephones, people who couldn't speak English, couldn't read English. Even though more needs to be done, it gave me a good feeling.

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