On 17 January 1994, an unknown fault under Northridge in the suburban San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, California, ruptured and briefly thrust the ground violently upward. In those few seconds a disaster was set in motion as buildings and highways collapsed, fires broke out, and people fled into the streets. Some fifty-seven deaths have been attributed to the earthquake and thousands more were injured. The magnitude 6.7 temblor was the source of one of the most expensive disasters in US history, with direct losses of at least US $25 billion, and estimated losses now approaching $44 billion (OES 1997). In the three years that followed more than 681,000 applied for assistance from federal and state governments. One year to the day after the Northridge main shock, a magnitude 6.9 earthquake struck the large port city of Kobe, Japan. That earthquake triggered major fires, buildings and highways toppled as soils liquefied, and thousands of wood framed homes collapsed, killing the inhabitants. As damage assessments became available in the aftermath, it became evident that Kobe’s Hanshin earthquake far surpassed Northridge in human and economic costs: more than 6,400 died, 300,000 were homeless after the destruction of 136,000 housing units, and economic losses soared passed the US $150 billion mark (Smith 1996; Tierney and Goltz 1996). In one calendar year, two of the core nations of the North were struck by socially and economically disruptive earthquakes, the worst either had experienced in decades. Both disasters are further reminders that tens of millions of people, particularly those living in heavily urbanized areas along the Pacific Rim, may be exposed, at anytime, to large and damaging earthquakes.
While such summary statistics may provide a general sense of the relative severity of a given disaster, they tell us nothing about lived experiences of people caught up in such catastrophes. Nor do they reveal why a physical hazard such as an earthquake becomes a disaster for some people but not others, and for some communities but not others. Nevertheless, there is a media-driven tendency to focus our attention on the extreme physical aspects of disaster and the more gruesome aspects of people’s sufferings: What was the magnitude? How many buildings collapsed? How many died? How much did it cost? There is an equal tendency for many academic researchers to consider such events as natural occurrences caused by some exceptional force of nature temporarily disrupting an otherwise ‘normal’ community. The United Nations, as part of a broad policy initiative, has declared the 1990s as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR), reinforcing a view that disasters originate in nature (Mitchell 1990). Disasters are easily characterized as unfortunate things that happen from time to time to people and their cities. What is missing in this view is any understanding of the ways that political and economic forces create conditions that result in an earthquake having disastrous impacts for some people and communities.