Case Study: Northridge Earthquake


The Northridge earthquake on January 17, 1994 in Southern California measured 6.7 Richter. Since it occurred on Martin Luther King Day and at 4:31 AM, the death tool was limited to 61 and injury count to 7,300. Six major freeway ramps were demolished, 200 buildings suffered major damage, and hundreds of thousands were displaced (amongst a population of about 10 million). While FEMA’s response was immediate, it was not comprehensive. Due to socioeconomic and immigration status, there were many individuals that did not receive proper aid. Further, FEMA aid was temporary. Months after the earthquake, 67% of adult survivors and 88% of children survivors had severe PTSD. 50% of mental health workers showed signs of PTSD. The psychological stress experienced by certain survivors has impaired physical health.

Other Impact

Twenty three hospitals were forced to suspend some if not all of their services when they were needed most and incurred $3 billion in damages. Many patients were either bedridden or limited in mobility, making relocation particularly difficult.

The destruction of highways led to a 300% increase in morning commuters on the light rail system. The system maintained 70% of the new ridership after normal traffic conditions were restored.


Within a week, the Federal government issued a $7.5 billion aid package which included $3.9 million for FEMA and $1.35 billion for the Federal Highway Association. FEMA used $35 million for crisis counseling and outreach services.

Assistance programs were not intended to improve previous living conditions. They were only expected to assist victims in returning to the state of their situation prior to the disaster. The level of assistance a given person received depended on his or her socioeconomic status prior to the earthquake.

FEMA coordinated with Housing and Urban Development and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services to help find housing for 130,000 middle-class and low-income families. FEMA issued assistance checks for two to three months following the earthquake with options to extend relief up to 18 months.

The American Red Cross dispatched 15,000 trained relief workers to harbor 22,000 refugees in 47 shelters and provide 1.7 million meals.

In order to reach illegal immigrants, who would be apprehensive of seeking Federal aid, project COPE (Counseling Ordinary People in Emergencies) coordinated with Catholic Charities, and Clinicas del Camino Real, local organizations in whom the community felt a level of confidence. COPE provided Spanish-language counseling services.


Survivors seemed content with relief efforts. In a notoriously materialistic area, the earthquake caused some to reevaluate their priorities. 40% of those interviewed established a positive meaning in their experiences because it allowed them to realize the transience of material items and they learned to appreciate others more.


In disaster scenarios, the resources that are most needed can become the most scarce. Hospitals can be damaged, increasing the occupancy of hospitals in periphery areas. This highlights the importance of rapid and effective triage. Design that expedites this process, perhaps tools that allow volunteers to pre-screen the injured would alleviate strain on medical staff. The prevalence of PTSD and relatively limited resources dedicated to long-term psychological recovery suggests that measures need to be taken upfront to help victims move on. Emergency preparedness kits that anticipate emotional needs might prove to be cost-effective in alleviating trauma on a large scale.

Kalayjian, Ani, and Dominique Eugene. Mass Trauma and Emotional Healing around the World: Rituals and Practices for Resilience and Meaning-making. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010. 23-35. Print.

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