Final Report-MF

The 1994 Northridge Earthquake Aftermath: Segregation of Media Coverage and Recovery Aid against Latino Communities in San Fernando Valley.

by Masahiro Fukura

In the year 1994 of January, one photo was posted on the Los Angeles Times, coming from San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. In the photo, a little Latina girl of elementary age, stares back while hugging her teddy bear in seeming fear. Behind her lies an entire line of cardboard boxes forming makeshift shelters, right outside of an apartment building, completely abandoned and void of people. No one else could be seen, only the little girl, all alone.[1]

This photo was taken in front of an apartment complex in Van Nuys, San Fernando Valley by photographer Al Seib, who have worked for the Los Angeles Times since 1984, after few days following the events of January 17th, 1994, when California have been struck by a major 6.8 earthquake that shook the entirety of Los Angeles, in time to be known as the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. The photo shows 7 year old Jessica Hernandez, who have taken shelter in the makeshift cardboard shelter with her family, right outside their own homes.[2] The residents were living in fear and were too afraid to enter their own homes and thus have resorted to sheltering outside, which is due to many of the Latino immigrants have previously experienced the Mexico City Earthquake in 1985, knowing that stronger aftershocks were soon to follow the initial foreshock.[3]

Surprisingly, the photograph presented a lack of active public services and assistances for the locals, despite the fact that the residents of this apartment are clearly concerned. Aside from the lack of visible damages, the presence of residents on the streets should alert local government support to the location, particularly addressing safety concerns for the residents. Despite so, there are no police or emergency workers investigating the apartment for safety, nor even caution tapes or signs that indicate their past presence at the building is not visible.

This absence of local emergency aids for these local residents brings into question the effectiveness and competency of the local emergency aid and assistance programs that are meant to help the affected residents. We have to realize and question, would this little girl, her family and neighbors received the same type of treatment and position, if they were a white community? This hidden insight provided through this photo represents one of multiple aspects of the racial inequity prevalent in the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake for the Latino communities. Hence, the event portrays the larger problem of racial inequalities that become prevalent against Latino communities within the San Fernando Valley with the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge Earthquake.

This assessment seeks to investigate the racial inequalities revealed by the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake within the San Fernando Valley. In the following aftermath of the earthquake disaster, one must fully explore the influence of media outlets to understand the extent of media biases between Latino and white communities, by the naming, the amount of coverage, and the inaccuracies created due to the media coverage of events of the earthquake. Furthermore, it is imperative to understand the distribution of government financial aids among the Latino communities for their recovery. In combination, they provide an understanding of the consequences of the Northridge earthquake for the Latino communities.

San Fernando Valley Immigrants

            Before entering the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake, the historical moment that set the ethnic tensions within the San Fernando Valley must be understood. In the beginning of the post-war period, San Fernando Valley have long maintained a homogeneously white and prosperous community due to its geographical isolation by the surrounding mountains. During this time period, San Fernando Valley represented the stereotypical american suburbs of Southern California. Over time, the valley experienced a mass influx of immigrants from primarily Hispanic origins, which drastically changed the valley into an ethnically diverse community. By the 1990s, almost a third of the population in the valley were from foreign origins, completely altering the previous image of the valley community.[4]

With the rapid change in the ethnic diversity, the San Fernando Valley in the 1990s were set in an ethnically tense environment between the existing white communities and the recently settled Latino communities. Pre-existing white communities perceived the growing Latino population as unwanted and invasive, and the valley is segregated between rich white communities in the west, and Latino communities found in the east.[5] Latino growth also led to new regulatory laws including Proposition 187 that received much support from the local white communities in their effort to drive out “illegal immigrants,” in particular Latino immigrants.[6] Overall, it is important to realize the prevalence of the sentiment of unwantedness against the growing Latino populations by the pre-existing white communities of San Fernando, which outlined the relationship between white and Latino communities proceeding into the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake.

Media Coverage of the Northridge Earthquake

Once after the Northridge earthquake ravaged San Fernando Valley, the first outlet to directly impact the aftermath was the news media, in which the racial inequality and ethnic biases found within the media coverage dictated the selection of naming, the extent of media coverage, and the inaccuracies of information. The first and foremost significance entitled to media is the naming of the event through the news, which revealed the peculiar bias pertaining to the naming of the “Northridge” earthquake. As already noted, the event was named the Northridge earthquake by the news media, which the average reader would presume to be the epicenter of the earthquake. However, with further research into the information, it could be discovered that the actual epicenter was located in the neighborhood of Reseda, only a few blocks south from Northridge.[7]

To understand why the earthquake was not named after Reseda and instead Northridge requires the comparison of the two communities. Reseda, the epicenter of the earthquake, coincidentally happened to be a predominantly Latino neighborhood, while on the other hand, Northridge was a modest white community.[8] In addition to the racial profile of the two communities, Reseda is on average less wealthy than Northridge, where per capita income of Reseda was roughly $15,000 compared to Northridge with $24,000 per capita income.[9] Overall, Reseda was a poor Latino community compared to the rich white community of Northridge, which reveals a stark contrast in ethnicity and economical status between the two neighboring communities. Hence, the media choosing Northridge instead of the actual epicenter of Reseda, represent a significant bias in media coverage where the media preferentially favored the white and rich communities to be chosen as the name of this natural disaster, instead of the Latino communities who were rightfully at the actual epicenter. This bias in media and its coverage of the “Northridge” earthquake presents the racial inequality for Latino communities, especially with Reseda unjustly under-covered by news media as the true epicenter of the disaster.

            This pattern of preferential bias for white, rich communities was also prevalent in the amount of media coverage received by each regional area of the valley, which resulted in the under-coverage of poor, Latino communities by the news media. In a research study by Rodrigues and his team investigating the amount of media coverage in relation to the ethnic and economic background of the area, they discovered that certain areas were identifiable as significantly overcovered and under-covered communities by the media. Within these communities in the valley, overcovered areas by the media were found to be 61% white with per capita income of $26,000, while under-covered areas were merely 22% white with $14,000 per capita income.[10] The amount of media coverage has been shown by Rodrigues’ study to significantly favor more rich and white communities, while simultaneously resulted in the under-coverage of ethnically “less white” communities, in particular those of Hispanic origins. This suggest that the mainstream media have significantly covered the white communities affected by the earthquake, while this action largely excluded and consequently downplayed the damages and impacts suffered by Latino communities as they were less covered by the media. Hence the biased media coverage represents the racial inequality found in media attention and negligence of the Latino communities by the news media, where Latino communities did not receive equal amount of media coverage and treatment, compared to the white communities that overall received more media attention and coverage in the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake.

             Another overarching problem of the ethnic bias in the amount of coverage and naming of the Northridge earthquake was the inaccuracies and misinformation generated from these media biases. This inaccuracy caused by the racial bias in media coverage resulted in misinformation of the actual damages caused by the earthquake. In further studies by Rodrigues reported that under-covered areas within the valley have suffered significantly higher numbers of damaged buildings with 3066 buildings damaged, in comparison to overcovered areas suffered much less with 835 damaged buildings as of April 1994.[11] Despite so, these under-covered areas of primarily poor Latino communities received less media coverage, suggesting that media bias favoring white communities resulted in the neglection of damages in Latino communities by the news media. Rodrigues also discovered that the media coverage by local news media such as the Los Angeles Times, accounted for merely 35% of the actual damaged areas of earthquake.[12] Here, the news media clearly have done poorly in effectively reporting all the major damages of the Northridge earthquake, in particular the under-covered areas found within poor Latino communities of the San Fernando Valley. The active avoidance and neglection by news media therefore downplayed the overall damages suffered by the Latino communities, misinforming the public with biased coverage that did not accurately represented the Latino communities. Therefore, inaccuracies in the actual reported damages due to the under-coverage of Latino communities presented a problem of misinformation, where the damages suffered by the Latino communities were largely excluded and downplayed by the media, despite more damages were present in Latino communities.

In addition to overall inaccuracies, the inaccurate information provided by the media have the skewing potential of further misinformation of the earthquake. In a report made by O’Brien for the Natural Hazards Center in the direct aftermath of the earthquake in 1994, he reported from the site of Northridge only few days after the disaster, in which he reportedly chose Northridge for his analysis for three main reasons, “…1) it is where the epicenter was located, 2) some of the highest rate of overall damage occurred there, and 3) it had the highest level of fatalities.”[13] Unknowingly for O’Brien, his first two reasons were in actuality incorrect. As already mentioned, Reseda was the true epicenter of the earthquake and not Northridge, not only that, but Northridge did also not experience the most overall damage in the Los Angeles county, as it was in fact Crenshaw district, a Latino community located 20 miles outside of San Fernando Valley, which similarly received no media coverage despite the heavy damages suffered by the earthquake.[14] This inaccurate information that O’Brien believed to be true, implies the impacts of the news media and its biased coverage of Northridge, where the skewed media information cause people like O’Brien to believe the information as factual.

            This becomes even more serious of a problem by the fact that this report was made for a public institution, which advices taken from misinformed papers like the one written by O’Brien may severely impact the Latino communities in the future. In particular, O’Brien noted the news to provide a “pivotal role following the Northridge Earthquake,” and suggested that “Government leaders, and emergency managers need to keep the lines of communication open to news organizations.”[15] Rodrigues, knowing of this bias and the inaccuracies in the media, warned against the reliance of local media as a source of information for emergency responders.[16] As explored earlier O’Brien did not realize the ethnic biases present within news media, hence his suggestion to rely on news media to guide the government and emergencies could prove to be detrimental. If O’Brien’s suggestion were to be implemented, proper response by the government and emergency managers would be significantly reduced or may not arrive at all for any under-covered communities of San Fernando, especially for the Latino communities. Instead, Rodrigues called for alternative means of gaining reliable information, where information on areas of emergencies can be assessed without biases against poor Latino communities. Thus, information provided by the local news media have a strong influence on spreading inaccurate information even among scholarly papers as seen with O’Brien. Henceforth, it is crucial to realize the biases present within news media outlets of San Fernando Valley, as these biased reports quite often determine the name of their choice, the amount of media coverage, and provide inaccurate information, favoring the coverage of white communities and excluding the Latino communities.

The Federal Response

The next phase of the aftermath revolved on the financial aid provided by the federal institutions necessary to recover from the Northridge earthquake, however federal financial aid programs suffered major issues in providing for the Latino communities, including problems within the federal aid system, the distribution of wealth, and overcoming of language barriers. In the provision process for the residents of San Fernando Valley, the federal assistance programs  were established with unfavorable policies for the Latino communities in receiving the essential needs for recovery. Firstly, federal aid programs operated by allocating financial aid based on absolute losses, which turned out to be catastrophic for the Latino community. Under this allocation policy, federal aids received were determined by the financial loss to the earthquake for each individual. [17] While this may be less problematic for the more financially well-off white residents, most Latino population were in desperate need of federal aid for life essentials after the state of emergency. As most Latino residents were more financially vulnerable due to their low-income, they are not seeking aid for replacing their losses, but in need of aid. Hence, the federal aid programs possessed a fundamental problem with their loss-based policy, where their allocation of aid was not based on the immediate emergency needs of the local Latino residents as opposed to replacing the losses of the earthquake, which in most case Latino residents did not receive enough from their losses to meet their emergency needs. Therefore, the loss-based policy shaping federal aid programs does not properly address and satisfy the essential needs that was necessary for the financially vulnerable Latino residents, while the more financially stable white residents are less affected by it.

Another issue arising with the federal aid programs was the distribution of the federal aid across different social status, where financial aids were disproportionally favored towards white residents as opposed to Latino residents. As previously mentioned, federal aid was allocated by absolute losses of the individual. However, the fact that aid was based on losses meant federal aid would be more provided to residents with more valuable possessions, in particular real estate. A research by Kamel investigated which group received the highest and lowest amount of federal aid in the aftermath of the earthquake, which he found that the highest receiving groups were single-family homeowners primarily of white origin, while the lowest receiving groups were those of multi-family and rental housings, primarily of Hispanic origins.[18] Here, it could be seen that higher price homes overall received more federal aid as opposed to lower priced homes of multi-family and rental homes, where the higher property value received more federal aid. Hence, Kamel’s study revealed a severe socioeconomic disadvantage for Latino residents to receive federal aid, as the most to receive federal aids were wealthy single-family homeowners who were primarily white residents, while Latino residents mostly lived in cheaper, multi-family and rental apartments, which does not yield much federal aid. Therefore, federal aid was disproportionally favored towards wealthy white residents, presenting the unequal distribution of the federal assistance were severely limited for low-income Latino residents.

While the federal aids were provided to the Latino communities, the most crucial aspect of the federal financial aid was the language barrier, which brings into question the effectiveness of proper translations for the Latino communities. Translation is a crucial aspect of transparency for Latino populations, as the language barrier can prevent Latino communities to be shunned from important information. Such incident was once seen in the environmental justice movement of Kettleman city, where the proposed construction of an incinerator was kept secret and unavailable to the local Latino community due to the inability to read English documents.[19] Hence, proper translation is an important factor in the inclusion of minority communities, which also holds true for the Latino communities of San Fernando.

According to interviews with the Federal Emergency Management Agency[FEMA], they insisted that publications pertaining to the financial aid have been translated to multiple languages and multilingual translators and assistants were provided for Latino citizens at the application center. This provides that translational efforts have indeed been made in San Fernando Valley, and Latino communities were not necessarily barred from applying for federal aid programs. However, FEMA staff admitted that the application process was mostly in English.[20] Alternatively, in an account from O’Brien’s study, he noticed the language barrier as well, in which he stated that filling for financial aid applications was very problematic for the Latino communities.[21] Here, it could be seen that the application process was in English causing the most problem in language barrier, which could be assumed that the application had to be in English for easier processing of information. The decision to not translate the application paper raises the question of the FEMA efforts in full transparency. For FEMA to have the application paper in English for their own convenience and thus making it more difficult for the Latino citizens questions their consideration of how it felt for Latino citizens to sign an important legal document regarding financial assistance to be written in a completely different language. Overall, serious translation efforts have indeed been implemented by FEMA and the financial aid programs for the Latino communities, yet the language barrier is still a prevalent factor in the federal aid application process, questioning their considerations for the Latino citizens.

Unjust Recovery

            Now with the full consideration of the racial inequalities present within the news media and federal aid programs, the impacts of the racial injustices were revealed in the form of slowed recovery rate, neglection of apartments, and the loss of Latino populations over course of time. In the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake, the recovery of Latino communities from the disaster was significantly slower, which have been impacted by the extensive lack of media coverage. Returning to Rodrigues, his media assessment discovered that overcovered areas by the media was shown to experience higher recovery rates compared to under-covered areas, with recovery rates of 42% and 34% respectively. This significant impact was influenced by the media coverage, where the amount of coverage influenced the disaster management personnel’s association of the area as a prioritized zone, with more media coverage, the stronger association as a priority area was created within the personnel’s mind.[22] On the contrary, the absence of media coverage created the opposite effect, where the under-covered areas, in particular Latino communities were less prioritized as they have never appeared on the news. This massive influence of the news media presents the impacts media coverage can have on the local communities. Thus, the ethnic biases of media coverage matter as the amount of coverage in the media can massively downplay the under-covered Latino communities, while favoring the overcovered white communities. 

            Further in time, the Latino communities of San Fernando Valley began to experience population loss after the Northridge earthquake, resulting from the loss of homes.[23] In the Latino communities, many of the cheap multi-family homes and rental apartments were damaged, yet the due to the cheap status of the homes, federal aid programs did not provide enough financial aid to repair them, resulting in many Latino residents to abandon their homes. This eviction of the Latino population was partially in result of the low federal aid, as their multi-family homes and rental apartments did not provide much federal aid due to the loss-based allocation policy. The Panorama tower was a prime example of one of the abandoned buildings after being damaged by the earthquake in 1994, which recently reopened in 2020. The newly reopened Panorama tower showed similarities with many of the rebuilt homes and apartments after the earthquake, which were more luxurious and provided less apartment rooms.[24] With the abandonment of the damaged homes and apartments, it allowed reformation of apartments into luxurious buildings, which further forced the Latino communities to migrate out as their area became less affordable. In other words, this drastic transformation from cheap Latino neighborhood into luxurious apartment buildings resulted initially from the low amount of federal aid associated due to the cheap properties, transformed in the will of their wealthy owners once they are gone.

            The little Latina girl stood in front, hugging her teddy bear seemingly in fear, the cardboard shelters, and the abandoned apartment behind, this image depicts the ignorance endured by Latino communities after the events of the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Within the San Fernando Valley, the negligence of local Latino communities and its residents based on the absence of law enforcement or government personnel within the photo, brought into question the effectiveness and competency of the local emergency aid and assistance programs that were meant to help the affected residents within the Latino communities. The ineffectiveness of the local emergency aids for Latino communities represented the active negligence of the Latino population prevalent in the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake. Therefore, the racial disparities depicted within this setting allows us to recognize the similar pattern of racial disparities and negligence taking place against the Latino minorities within the San Fernando Valley during the 1990s.

Conclusion

            After the earthquake shook the whole valley, the name of this disaster came to be known as the Northridge earthquake. The origin point of Reseda, nor the Latino communities suffering was ever heard from the media, only the name Northridge and the white communities was heard. The news coverage had shown how easily the media can choose the name for its events, actively neglect the local Latino communities, and feed inaccurate information to the public, completely misrepresenting and neglecting the Latino populations who are equally suffering from the disaster. Once the dust settled, the federal assistance agencies presented more complicated problems, with the loss-based policy fully ignoring the emergency needs, as well as creating a disparity between the white homeowners, and the Latino renters, favoring the white and wealthy, while providing little for the poor. They at least allowed coherence through the language barrier, while questionably keeping the application English for their own convenience. Despite forsaken as assistance for the people, what in turn given was ignorant and disparate service providing minimal for the Latino people. Over time, the effects become visible with the media influence delaying the Latino recovery from the disaster, and the low federal aid forcing the migration of Latino communities from their formal area, as influenced by the racial disparities in media and federal aid.

Throughout time, the aftermath events of the disastrous earthquake revealed the presence of neglection and disparities against the Latino communities, with the clear favoritism for the white communities. The racial biases within the media have shown the active exclusion and negligence of Latino communities in media coverages. The distribution of federal aid revealed the racial disparity present in the federal aid programs. In both cases, the one favored against the Latino communities was the wealthy, white communities. This overall presence of active exclusion and racial disparities symbolized the strong racial polarization and inequality present during the 1990s in San Fernando Valley, California, depicted through the news media and the federal aid programs experienced by the Latino communities.


[1] Shelby Grad, “Here’s what it was like to live through the terror of the Northridge earthquake, which hit 24 years ago,” Los Angeles Times, last modified January 17th, 2018, https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-northridge-quake-remember-20180117-htmlstory.html.

[2] Shelby Grad, “Here’s what it was like to live through the terror of the Northridge earthquake, which hit 24 years ago,” Los Angeles Times, last modified January 17th, 2018, https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-northridge-quake-remember-20180117-htmlstory.html.

[3] Stefano Bloch, “An autoethnographic account of urban restructuring and neighborhood change in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.” cultural geographies 27, no. 3 (2020): 379-394.

[4] Andrew Murr, “Immigrants in the valley,” Newsweek 124, no. 26 (1994): 115-116. See also Stefano Bloch, “An autoethnographic account of urban restructuring and neighborhood change in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.” cultural geographies 27, no. 3 (2020): 379-394.

[5] Andrew Murr, “Immigrants in the valley,” Newsweek 124, no. 26 (1994): 115-116.

[6] Andrew Murr, “Immigrants in the valley,” Newsweek 124, no. 26 (1994): 115-116. See also Stefano Bloch, “An autoethnographic account of urban restructuring and neighborhood change in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.” cultural geographies 27, no. 3 (2020): 379-394.

[7] Christine M. Rodrigue, Eugenie Rovai, and Susan E. Place, “Construction of the “Northridge” Earthquake in Los Angeles’ English and Spanish Print Media: Damage, Attention, and Skewed Recovery.” Center for Hazards Research, (1997).

[8] Andrew Murr, “Immigrants in the valley,” Newsweek 124, no. 26 (1994): 115-116.

[9]  Christine M. Rodrigue, Eugenie Rovai, and Susan E. Place, “Construction of the “Northridge” Earthquake in Los Angeles’ English and Spanish Print Media: Damage, Attention, and Skewed Recovery.” Center for Hazards Research, (1997).

[10] Christine M. Rodrigue, Eugenie Rovai, and Susan E. Place, “Construction of the “Northridge” Earthquake in Los Angeles’ English and Spanish Print Media: Damage, Attention, and Skewed Recovery.” Center for Hazards Research, (1997).

[11] Christine M. Rodrigue, Eugenie Rovai, and Susan E. Place, “Construction of the “Northridge” Earthquake in Los Angeles’ English and Spanish Print Media: Damage, Attention, and Skewed Recovery.” Center for Hazards Research, (1997).

[12] Christine M. Rodrigue, Eugenie Rovai, and Susan E. Place, “Construction of the “Northridge” Earthquake in Los Angeles’ English and Spanish Print Media: Damage, Attention, and Skewed Recovery.” Center for Hazards Research, (1997).

[13] Paul W. O’Brien, “Social Response to the 1994 Northridge California Earthquake,” FMHI Publications, Paper 48 (1994).

[14] Christine M. Rodrigue, Eugenie Rovai, and Susan E. Place, “Construction of the “Northridge” Earthquake in Los Angeles’ English and Spanish Print Media: Damage, Attention, and Skewed Recovery.” Center for Hazards Research, (1997).

[15] Paul W. O’Brien, “Social Response to the 1994 Northridge California Earthquake,” FMHI Publications, Paper 48 (1994).

[16] Christine M. Rodrigue, Eugenie Rovai, and Susan E. Place, “Construction of the “Northridge” Earthquake in Los Angeles’ English and Spanish Print Media: Damage, Attention, and Skewed Recovery.” Center for Hazards Research, (1997).

[17] Nabil M. O. Kamel, and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, “Residential assistance and recovery following the Northridge earthquake.” Urban Studies 41, no. 3 (2004): 533-562.

[18] Nabil M. O. Kamel, and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, “Residential assistance and recovery following the Northridge earthquake.” Urban Studies 41, no. 3 (2004): 533-562.

[19] Luke W. Cole, and Sheila R. Foster, “We Speak for ourselves: The struggle of Kettleman City,” in From the ground up: Environmental racism and the rise of the environmental justice movement. (New York City: NYU Press, 2001) 1-33.

[20] Nabil M. O. Kamel, and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, “Residential assistance and recovery following the Northridge earthquake.” Urban Studies 41, no. 3 (2004): 533-562.

[21] Paul W. O’Brien, “Social Response to the 1994 Northridge California Earthquake,” FMHI Publications, Paper 48 (1994).

[22] Christine M. Rodrigue, Eugenie Rovai, and Susan E. Place, “Construction of the “Northridge” Earthquake in Los Angeles’ English and Spanish Print Media: Damage, Attention, and Skewed Recovery.” Center for Hazards Research, (1997).

[23] Nabil M. O. Kamel, and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, “Residential assistance and recovery following the Northridge earthquake.” Urban Studies 41, no. 3 (2004): 533-562.

[24] Bianca Barragan, “Panorama City tower, vacant for decades, makes a comeback as 194 light-filled apartments,”  Curbed LA, last modified February 28th, 2020, https://la.curbed.com/2020/2/28/21157868/panorama-city-tower-apartments-vacant-rehab-northridge-earthquake.