Crisis Management Leadership Life Lessons

Northridge Earthquake

After moving from New York City to Southern California, I did not look forward to being greeted by an earthquake.  Back in 1981, I was living on the 18th floor of a condominium in Long Beach with my cousin.  On a clear day from my bedroom looking north, I could see the famous Hollywood sign.  When the building suddenly started swaying and shaking, and I realized what was happening, I closed my eyes and hoped it would end as quickly as it had begun.  The recognition of an earthquake in progress brings a complete sense of helplessness to whomever experiences it.  Because the origin of the earthquake was not close to Long Beach and its magnitude was not great, Long Beach did not incur much damage.

Since living in California, by far the worst earthquake I have experienced came in January of 1994 where the center was in Northridge, California in the San Fernando Valley in the County of Los Angeles. It had a magnitude of 6.7 and, it occurred at 4:31 in the morning, Pacific Standard Time, with its duration approximately from 10 to 20 seconds.   Suddenly awakened from a deep sleep, I remained breathless, as it seemed an eternity before the movement of my condominium building ceased (I was thankfully no longer living in a high rise).  Without a doubt, much worse damage would have occurred if the earthquake had struck at a time when most people were up and around.

When the earthquake hit, I was employed as a psychologist in a bilingual mental health clinic, El Centro, located in East Los Angeles.  Because there had been a fair amount of damage in downtown LA, temporary shelters were set up for people whose homes had been affected.  El Centro sent a case worker and me to Belmont High School, the site of one of the shelters, with the task of helping families, impacted by the crisis, cope better.

When I arrived at the school early the next morning, I saw my colleague who pointed to a mass of people surrounding some Red Cross workers, who were carrying megaphones.  Because she was already working with a family, I went over to see if I could help.   Upon hearing one of the Red Cross workers asking if anyone could speak Spanish, I quickly went over and told him I did.  He told me to tell the crowd to return to where their individual families were staying and water and food soon would be brought to them.  When I translated what he had said in Spanish, all the families immediately dispersed, and, as they formed lines to return to their designated areas,  I had this eerie feeling that I was like Moses in the Bible, casting a rod on the Red Sea, that allowed the Jews to cross over the water unharmed.

I was surprised to discover that the Red Cross workers had come from New York, and other areas quite far from California, with few, if any able to communicate in Spanish.  Because the target population was first generation immigrants from Central America and Mexico, about 80% of the families could only speak Spanish.  While the Red Cross workers were able to organize the food bank with helpers that spoke English, the case worker and I spent time with the families, many of whom had children that had some symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Because there were so many families in the makeshift shelter at the high school, I knew there would not be sufficient time to carry out an actual therapy session with each one.  Upon meeting the family members, in order to expedite the process, I made a quick assessment of how badly they were all hurting from the disaster.   I was able to do this by simply asking how they were doing, and afterwards, by observing their responses, with special attention given to how the children were doing.

I began by informing the family about the services offered by El Centro and, that they could be had at virtually no cost to them.  Fortunately, there were some resources made available to each family such as paper and pencil. A typical intervention that I found to be quite effective was to have the child or children draw a picture of their apartment after the earthquake, and then afterwards, have them draw it the way they remembered it.  I had the parents then reinforce to the children that their apartment would be repaired, and most importantly, they would have a place to return.   Depending on the needs of each family, I spent anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes, but given the number of families there, I made it a point to budget the time spent with each one.

It was a long day as we were there for more than 10 hours with a very short break for lunch.  But because the families expressed their appreciation for our efforts, the case worker and I both shared a sense of satisfaction at our accomplishments.  At the end of the day, one of The Red Cross workers confided in me that he would have liked to have been more useful, but obviously could not, due to the fact that he did not speak Spanish.

I do not want my readers to think that I am saying The Red Cross is not a worthwhile organization.  In fact, some years earlier I had taken a very beneficial training course in how to deal with natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires or floods.  Nevertheless, it was evident that there was a lack of coordination vis-à-vis a need’s assessment with local agencies in Los Angeles that knew more precisely what type of services were required.  In this case, it was not so much that there was a lack of assistance but rather that the wrong sort of aid had been sent.

Similarly, there has been many errors made in adequately managing the current coronavirus health crisis.  In view of the fact that we are all living in the “shrinking” world of globalization, it is imperative that nations cooperate with one another.  When China refused to accept the seriousness of the coronavirus by hiding the scope of the problem from the world, what started as an epidemic quickly turned into a pandemic.  Once the medical profession understood the potential danger of what might happen here, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, needed to lead in administering–as soon as possible–test kits to work on tracking the virus.  Unfortunately, for a number of reasons that we now understand, this did not happen in any timely manner.

To conclude, the initial response by The Red Cross to the Northridge Earthquake showed a lack of coordination with the local agencies in California that were directly involved, an absolute necessity in the successful handling of any type of crisis.  The most important lesson here is that leaders need to talk to local experts on whatever the emergency entails to develop a united initiative.





By docallegro

Consulting Psychologist
Specialties in: Cognitve-Behavioral Interventions, Conflict Resolution, Mediation, Stress Management, Relationship Expertise, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Fluent in Spanish

2 replies on “Northridge Earthquake”

Good to hear from you. Hope all is well with you and you are staying well during these tough times.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s