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AFTERSHOCKS - PHYCHIC AND OTHERWISE : The Next Terror: Challenge of Rebuilding

January 30, 1994|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, professor of planning and development at USC and faculty member of the USC Embassy Residential College, is writing his next volume of the history of California, "The Dream Endures: California Through the Great Depression," to be published by Oxford University Press.

First came the terror of the earthquake. Now come questions that hold a terror of their own. How will Los Angeles and its surrounding communities survive the disruption to its one abiding necessity--mobility? Can strategies to supplement the broken lifelines be devised? More subtly, but of equal importance, can the civility and good behavior of the immediate post-quake days be prolonged?

Irony of ironies, the Northridge earthquake temporarily restored to the region, the city of Los Angeles especially, its lost reputation. For nearly two years, the outside world has been judging Los Angeles by the riots. Here, critics contended, was proof positive of the pervasive social instability of the city, and much of the county, of Los Angeles. Yet, in the wake of the earthquake, there were no riots; looting was negligible. The citizens of the region--of necessity!--repossessed the public places they had long since abandoned to the bad guys.

Yet, news reports of possible widespread fraud in the emergency food-stamp program take some of the bloom off the rose of social cooperation and good behavior in the post-earthquake era. Dangerously, the food-stamp fraud offers an opportunity for immigrant-bashers who might want to suggest that all immigrants, even the undocumented, come from the criminal underclass, which is not the case. In the matter of showcasing social behavior, the earthquake giveth; the earthquake taketh away. In this instance, the earthquake has brought further to light the persistent presence of a growing underclass in the Southland.

Still, it is not boosterism to note--hence to praise--the performance of front-line public servants, the rank and file of city and county government, in the aftermath of the disaster. Nor is it naive to note that District Seven of Caltrans, the most challenged of all governmental agencies, revealed (perhaps for the first and last time) its humanity, as well as its bureaucratic clout, when a succession of its engineers jerry-rigged a transportation IV to the traumatized body of the region.

But now comes the hard part. Now comes the long-range, and perhaps most real, challenge. Now comes the slow recovery, with all its demands on personal and communal patience. Now comes the effort to maintain the high ground, the momentarily achieved sense of common identity and purpose.

The responses to some quake-created challenges, while expensive, are self-evident. The partial collapse and subsequent demolition of the Barrington Building on Olympic Boulevard, with the loss of countless, sensitive medical records, and damage to the Hall of Justice, which rendered its data system, from fingerprinting to criminal histories, temporarily useless, underscore the fact that the region can no longer afford to maintain its databases in one place.

And how do we face up to the limits of our highway engineering technology? Should we, for the third time, spend tens of millions of dollars on overpasses that must inevitably collapse? The region now has a window of opportunity to diversify its transportation options. But will government have the good sense to ease restrictions on shuttle vans, allowing them to function as para-transit jitneys on declared routes? Or will it continue to protect the public-transit monopoly?

How can we replace some 20,000-plus units of housing stock? How can banks be expected to refinance multiunit apartment complexes that, under current construction codes and costs, can never be made affordable to the population that was displaced by the quake? Will some public-private mode of refinance be achieved, thus putting Southern California on the cutting edge of housing economics? Or will only the affluent be able to regain lost housing, with the rest lingering on in tents or drifting into Third World-style shanty towns in exurban arroyos and culverts?

Comparisons have been made to the rebuilding and improvement of Athens following the Persian invasion of 479-480 BC, or the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666, or the recovery of Atlanta after Sherman's march to the sea, or the reconstruction of Chicago after the great fire of 1871, or to the rebuilding of San Francisco following the earthquake and fire of April, 1906. In one sense, such comparisons are perhaps too grand. Metropolitan Los Angeles was not brought to the ground as were these other cities.

Yet, in another sense, such comparisons are warranted, at least in American terms. The Northridge earthquake, at an estimated $30 billion in damages, represents the single most costly catastrophe in U.S. history. Athens, London, Atlanta, Chicago and San Francisco had years to rebuild, although San Francisco did it in slightly more than three. Metropolitan Los Angeles, by contrast, feels the necessity of recovering immediately, lest it lose its economic momentum, lest it gain a negative reputation in investment circles.

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