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The Monster Beneath Our Feet

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles. -- When we arrived in Southern California last Sunday morning, we'd planned to revel in the outdoors. We talked of walks on the beach, marveled at snapdragons in bloom in the middle of January and a warm sun that made us shed our East Coast layers. T-shirts were the order of the day. A Santa Monica promenade of coffee shops and bookstores beckoned. Good thing we packed our hightops, we thought.

Yes. At 4:31 a.m. Monday, one of us found them to be the most essential item brought along on this trip. They've been worn to bed all week since a 6.6-magnitude earthquake reminded all of California that the earth, indeed, is alive. That simple fact had been forgotten, especially here in Los Angeles. The splendor of this improbable, man-made paradise has a lulling effect. We forget we are in a desert basin, forget we are here through the earth's inscrutable caprice. Monday made us remember.

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Now we live with a nagging unease. A monster lurks beneath our feet and we fear its assault. The act of lacing up the hightops before lying down, or making sure a light is kept burning, feels oddly comforting as we prepare for the sleep we are to be denied. At any moment, we may have to make another mad -- down swaying stairs; may have to leap over shards of cracked mirror; balance ourselves on polished hardwood floors that all week refused to stay in place; or grope through the darkest of nights for the safety of a doorway. The shoes don't help us sleep; they only help us go to bed. You can't outrun fear.

And in the morning, bleary-eyed and nerve-jangled, we begin anew the ritual retelling of disaster. Angelenos talk again and again of the pulsing, adrenalin high of terror that unified the millions of souls here during the violent shaking. Some remember the Fourth-of-July light show of electric transformers exploding in the night. Others remember the land undulating as the awful seismic waves made their way out from Northridge.

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And still others recall the Central American immigrants huddled around candles in the frightening, unnerving darkness. We prayed for sunrise.

The quake's main shock lasted perhaps 20 seconds, a short time by the clock. But count it out and as you do, imagine it is 4:31 a.m., pitch-black and you are helpless. The monster is stalking the earth with supreme indifference to your hopes, plans, dreams.

It buries a young couple who had planned to wed, entombs residents who lived on the first floor of a Northridge apartment building, sparks a fire that consumes everything you hold dear.

The resulting devastation humbles the spirit. We are amazed it isn't greater: about 50 deaths, several thousand injured, even more thousands suddenly homeless in a metropolis of millions. Damage estimates range from $15 billion to $30 billion. For health, for family, for safety, we give thanks.

Today, we notice the fire-orange crowns of the bird of paradise flowers in the yard, and the lemons, plump and fragrant, weighing down the branches of the tree next door. Never mind the shattered glass and fallen brick on the sidewalk. We've been inducted into the fraternity of survivors.

What we don't discuss is the psychic aftershock. The vertigo induced by altered surroundings -- banisters no longer along straight, floors and freeways no longer flat. The clenching of teeth each time a door creaks. The holding of our breath when crossing or under highway bridges. The heart-sinking fear when we feel the earth moving beneath our feet.

The Northridge earthquake broke the pact we thought we'd made with nature -- that imagined agreement in which we asserted we were its equal, or at least a colleague.

Did we really think tons of steel and concrete could withstand forces that etched this landscape, that thrust up the mountains and carved our own Los Angeles Basin?

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Of course we did. We're Californians -- captivated by the beauty of the region, forgetful of the violent forces that made it possible. By midweek, scientists had announced that the nearby Santa Susanna mountains had grown taller by a foot. And by Wednesday, Caltech had recorded more than 1,000 aftershocks.

Each rattle adds new cracks to already damaged walls and foundations, and emotional fortifications. Every tremor we feel reminds us that we can't predict the next -- not the bump we're certain to wake to tonight nor the so-called "Big One" that Monday's quake failed to be. We've spent the week learning anew how to cope.

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In West Los Angeles, on a tree-lined block of gingerbread-style houses, a woman takes a short break from her back-bending task to ask after a neighbor's chimney. Her own lies across her driveway in a dusty heap. Did we know the bricks may be recyclable? she asks. Today, with her living room in plain sight through the gaping hole that once was a hearth, she lifts a brick from the pile, chips away at the mortar on it and adds it to a stack she's building from the rubble. No matter that an aftershock may come along to topple her neat inventory. There is purification in salvaging, in making good from bad, in bringing order to chaos.

At the landmark Metropolitan Church of Los Angeles, where the dome and its cupola top fell across the sidewalk and out into the second lane of Venice Boulevard, members gather. They take turns shoveling bricks and thanking God that they'd spent money these past two years reinforcing the walls of the 1927 Spanish-grotto style structure. The dome was slated for retrofitting next, said member Judy Hosner. But "when it fell, it did exactly what it was supposed to -- it leaned away from the sanctuary and landed right outside the front steps."

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Huddled in the back of a pickup truck, a family of four takes stock of the belongings snatched up grab on the race outside. A child holds a cat and a video-game machine. A woman has an armload of photographs. There's a pan of food snatched from a freezer; the temperature's 72 degrees, so dinner's thawing. There's a camp stove. And in a corner of the pickup there's a silent television, useless so far from any electrical outlet but safe from the so-far unrealized potential of looting.

Unrealized, because the crime rate plummeted this week. In 48 hours, city police arrested only 128 people; a typical day in L.A. brings in about 550. We hate to think it takes an earthquake to reduce crime, city police chief Willie Williams told President Clinton during an emergency planning meeting Wednesday.

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We opened our homes to neighbors we hadn't known. In Sun Valley, a Peruvian mother and her three children, all under age 12, found life in their second-floor apartment unendurable. The aftershocks were especially bad that day. The family turned to a friend, who turned to us. Of course we would take them in. And so they came, arms full of bedding they spread out on our dining room floor. We spent Monday night together, used the oldest daughter as our interpreter, took a small measure of comfort from each other's presence. It was not a night to be alone.

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Already the rebuilding has begun. Along the damaged highways, crews using blow-torches, pressure hoses and dinosaur-size jackhammers reduce to rubble sections of the concrete arteries that link the region's sprawl. They work fast, for nature has given them a head start. They exhibit the same dogged determination as the fire-rescue crews who spent eight hours sawing timbers and inflating air bags to create enough room so Salvador Pena could be reached under the tons of concrete that had been a Northridge mall parking garage. Like us, they are quick in trying to bring about a return to normalcy.

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But the earth still shakes. Buildings that seemed fine Monday slowly surrender as each new aftershock ripples through the basin. A house slides off a hill near the Pacific Ocean. A train and book collector is found dead under piles of the vintage items that had so obsessed him.

Yet for most of L.A., there is a return to everyday concerns. The buses are running. People drive the freeways and grouse about the detours added to their commutes. The sun shines bright and calm.

The number of aftershocks decreases as we move farther and farther away from Monday. You can almost embrace again that feeling of being in paradise. Almost. Then you catch a scene of Monday's destruction as you drive through the city, or you feel a tremor, and you remember the monster lurking beneath your feet.

Dion Thompson and Jean Thompson are editors at The Baltimore Sun.


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