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The Long, Long Road Back : Survey indicates Northridge earthquake recovery is far from complete

July 23, 1995

Perhaps the full measure of any natural disaster is not found in the chaos and wreckage that follow immediately. Perhaps that measure comes only through recognition of the time required for complete recovery. Eighteen months after the Northridge earthquake, it cannot be said with confidence that the region is even halfway back to normal.

The period of symbolic--and most easily addressed--recovery is over. What remains to be done is substantial, and not without controversy. Washington is not going to pay for everything. Big parts of the burden must be borne by nearly bankrupt Los Angeles County, the city, the state, the residents.

The Times series "The Road to Recovery 18 Months Out" points out that one in four residents responding to a recent Times Poll reported lingering financial woes. One in 10 were at least $10,000 short of the sum needed for repairs. One in 10 homeowners polled reported having to move. One in four apartment dwellers had been permanently uprooted. A third said that insurance claims were unsettled.

In the city of Los Angeles alone, work remains to be done under 77% of the building permits issued since the quake, and that doesn't count universities and hospitals. In hard-hit areas outside the zone nearest the epicenter, such as Sherman Oaks and Hollywood, the recovery has hardly begun. Just 30% of retail, office and apartment repairs have been completed, just 17% of single-family home repairs and just 14% of condominium repairs.

Some had predicted a boom for parts of the local economy when federal dollars rolled in. Wrong. Retail sales hardly budged, and construction employment was up a mere 4% in 1994 and far below 1990 levels. Maybe those facts have fed anger over what many consider the slowness of the federal response--the most generous ever after a natural disaster within U.S. borders.

For example, the president of Cal State Northridge, Blenda Wilson, has complained that the campus recovery might stall. However, others might conclude that CSUN has been rewarded handsomely for its quick, no-frills damage assessment. Even the Los Angeles Unified School District has taken second place to CSUN, which has thus far received 52% of the $350 million in grants it requested.

Other universities appear to be rewriting the science of seismic activity. Both UCLA ($950 million in claims) and County-USC Medical Center ($1.4 billion) seem to subscribe to the theory that damage multiplies as one travels away from the epicenter. Very little federal aid has gone to either so far, and repair plans must be scaled back.

A lesson could perhaps be learned from the average resident questioned in the Times Poll. Two-thirds said a sense of normalcy had returned to their lives. That speaks not only to the resiliency of Southern Californians but to an awareness that full recovery is a year away, if not more.

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