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CSUN at 40

'Not Just Back, but Better' Since Quake

Nearly five years later, the university has emerged from the rubble, resurrected into what promises to be one of the most modern campuses in the state.

September 21, 1998|MARGARET RAMIREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Explosions in chemical-laden engineering laboratories blew out windows, spraying shards of glass. Three science buildings simultaneously burst into flames. And a four-level parking structure collapsed.

Within seconds, terrified students trapped in their dormitory bedrooms started screaming. Nearby, the newly appointed university provost's platform bed split in two. And at Oviatt Library, huge chunks of the roof caved in.

In the end, the university suffered $378 million in damage to 107 structures in the Northridge earthquake. Two students died when the nearby Northridge Meadows Apartments complex collapsed that early morning of Jan. 17, 1994.

But aside from the physical scars, the earthquake changed the mind-set of those on campus, redefining CSUN as a place of fighters and survivors. "Not just back, but better" was the school's post-quake motto. In many ways, that's true.

Nearly five years later, the university has emerged from the rubble, resurrected into what will soon be one of the most modern campuses in the state.

Like wounded soldiers, students and staff bear scars of the battle but beam when they recall how they came back from behind and won the war.

In commemoration of the disaster, a collage of photographs was assembled for a school poster titled "Memories From the Epicenter." Indeed, everyone has strong memories of the quake. These are just a few:

Student body president Steve Parker was tossed off his mattress at his Van Nuys apartment when the quake struck. It was days before he was able to make it to campus, and when he got there, he could not believe his eyes.

"There was still a fire raging in the science building, and Oviatt Library looked like it had gone through a mortar attack," recalled Parker, 28, who works as Mayor Richard Riordan's representative for the San Fernando Valley.

At the time, Parker said nearly all students were thinking the same thought. What if CSUN closed? Where would we finish the term? Cal State Dominguez Hills? But Feb. 14, when the school reopened, Parker said it was like a family reunion.

"It was an unbelievable time, because when we came back to campus, the energy level was incredible. Everyone was so full of hope and anticipation. We were so excited we would be able to finish here," he said. "The quake produced that ability to press through."

Provost Louanne Kennedy had moved from New York to accept a job with CSUN five months before the quake. She was living in a dorm on campus surrounded by her belongings when the quake hit in the darkness before dawn. Family photos were ruined when water pipes burst. Her entire set of wedding china shattered; only one dish was left.

"I lost almost everything," Kennedy said. "But recently, there was a moment for me when I realized it's not about buildings or belongings. It's about what you carry in your heart."

As part of this year's 40th anniversary events, a student group is producing a videotape with footage of the quake's aftermath. President Blenda J. Wilson said watching those images is still difficult.

"It's amazing how it takes you back to the fear and awfulness of it. I would rather focus on the future."

Aside from teaching people the value of, as Kennedy said, "what you carry in your heart," the Northridge quake also forced administrators to rethink the way the school had been run.

"It was a jolt organizationally that blasted people from set habits and structures," said university spokesman John Chandler.

Although the destruction was devastating, the quake offered the opportunity to modernize the campus, said Arthur Elbert, vice president for administration and finance.

Five major projects are underway, including reconstructing the adjoining wings of Oviatt Library; building a new administration building and technology center; and designing buildings for the Health and Human Development College and the College of Arts, Media and Communication. The projects are expected to be done by summer 2000.

After the quake, Cal State Northridge leased more then 400 trailers for classrooms and offices. Today, 150 trailers and nine temporary structures remain, and the last portable classroom was removed in 1997--a landmark event cheered by many on campus.

Looking back, William Watkins, assistant vice president for student life, believes the most pronounced effect of the quake was elimination of barriers between faculty, administration and students.

"Starting over, we were all on equal footing," he said. "In effect, it tore down the walls of bureaucracy and brought us all together like nothing else could have."

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