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Gary Horton: We’ve been there twice before: We understand

Full Speed to Port!

Posted: January 19, 2010 6:08 p.m.
Updated: January 20, 2010 4:55 a.m.
The magnitude 6.6 Sylmar earthquake struck the San Fernando Valley 6 a.m. Feb. 9, 1971. I remember that morning like it was today.

We lived in Mission Hills, about four miles from San Fernando. I was 14 years old and attending George K. Porter Junior High School in Granada Hills.

Our stucco, 1940s-vintage home was typical of the lower-middle-class San Fernando Valley. I had my own small bedroom.

I was still sleeping when it hit. Low rumbling first, then a giant rolling underneath the floor. I woke to books, jars, aquariums and amateur radio gear flying all over my room, God-awful noises screaming from the rest of the house.

Being a young Lutheran, I first thought this was the End of the World. But the shaking continued and no epiphanies ensued, so I grabbed that headboard and held on tightly, determined to surf that bouncing bed all the way to the Pacific Ocean if need be.

Eventually the quake subsided and we collected ourselves. We kids ran to the neighbors, checking on them. All were OK and accounted for on Minnehaha Street.

We returned to our home and found it a mess. Everything was out of the shelves and counters. Some plaster was cracked and split.

My aquarium was shattered on the floor. I never found my fish, even though I looked for them for hours.

And then the high drama. The Van Norman Dam had eroded to within five feet of crashing down on all of Granada Hills, taking my beloved school with it. The quake’s damage could have been infinitely worse had the dam failed. But it didn’t. Granada Hills lucked out and we kids got four more weeks of winter vacation.

Still, 65 people died in the Sylmar Earthquake, with most of the deaths occurring at Olive View Medical Center in Sylmar and the Sylmar Veterans Hospital. As we watched the images of bodies being pulled from the rubble, I began learning the concept of disaster beyond control.

The freeway overpasses had collapsed at Interstate 5 and Highway 14 Freeway. Back then, they were gigantically tall, so all traffic stopped from north to south for months while the rubble was cleared and new, “safer” overpasses were constructed.

I never thought I would live through that terror again, but what we want in life and what we get are plainly two separate matters.

The magnitude 6.7 Northridge earthquake occurred on Jan. 17, 1994, at 4:31 a.m., lasting for about 20 seconds. We were living in the Valencia Summit, about four miles north of where California Highway Patrol motorcycle Officer Clarence Wayne Dean plummeted to his death as the freeway overpasses again collapsed from violent quaking.  

This earthquake was much more violent, pounding like a jackhammer attached to our home’s foundation. Bam, bam, bam, BAM!

The whole house came undone.

Everything was thrown out of cupboards and off shelves. Walls ripped wide open. Roofing lay on the lawn. Sidewalks shattered and flipped upside down. Streets ripped open.

I grabbed Carrie by her night clothes and dragged her to a doorway. Running upstairs, I pulled my frightened kids from their beds down to the same doorway.

As the pounding and flying debris settled, we made our way outside, careful not to cut our bare feet on the broken glass surrounding us.

Just after 4:30 a.m. we sat in on our driveway, in the dark, dressed in robes and sorting out what just happened to us, figuring out what we would have to do next.

No water; no power for days. Houses in ruins. Business had been slow, but now it completely stopped.

The days and months passed. FEMA responded. Earthquake insurance kicked in. Business picked back up and we slowly repaired our home. They rebuilt the overpasses — again.

It took tremendous personal and public effort to overcome the Northridge earthquake’s damage, but our community pitched in and made we it through. If you were there, you remember these things vividly — especially if you lost family members or your home in the devastation.

So when Haiti was hit with a devastating quake we immediately understood. I believe all Californians felt connected, as attested by the amount of donations flooding.

Sadly, Haiti didn’t have the building codes that helped Californians minimize casualties. They don’t have those “intruding government regulations” that demand safe building practices. A look at their damage, and we’re happy to have an effective building and safety department around these parts. Score one more for good government.

Credit America that we have poured in funds and security forces to help Haiti. Credit Americans that our compassion is fully blind to race, color, ethnicity or social economics.

We understand earthquakes. We’ve been there, done that and don’t ever want to do that again. We truly feel the pain Haitians are suffering now. We appreciate our good blessings and want to share.

If you haven’t already donated, perhaps now’s a good time. And the Red Cross ( is as good a place as any to start.

Gary Horton lives in Valencia. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Full Speed to Port!” appears Wednesdays in The Signal.


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