The "Northridge" and "Ferndale" Earthquakes:
Spatial Inequities in Media Attention and Recovery

National Social Science Journal 11, 2 (1998): 109-120.

Eugenie Rovai
Assistant Professor

Christine M. Rodrigue
Associate Professor

Center for Hazards Research
California State University
Chico, CA 95929-0425

Authors' current affiliations and contact information are provided below.


Document placed online with the permission of the National Social Science Association. The NSSA publishes the National Social Science Journal, in which this paper first appeared. We wish to thank Dr. Jerry Baydo for making this Web republication possible.



     In the early morning of January 17, 1994, a magnitude 6.7 earthquake shook the Los Angeles area. Several buildings and freeways collapsed, killing at least 61 people and injuring thousands. Los Angeles was actually rather lucky: because that Monday was the Martin Luther King holiday, making it part of a three-day weekend, a number of people were out of town, which probably saved some lives. Also, there was very little traffic -- both because of the holiday and the pre-dawn hour. Although loss of life was moderate, damage to property was enormous (current estimates exceed $20 billion). The January 17 earthquake now ranks with Hurricane Andrew as the costliest "natural" disasters in United States history.

     Disasters befall rural as well as urban areas. On April 25-26, 1992, three powerful earthquakes (magnitudes 7.1, 6.6, and 6.7) struck the rural Humboldt County area on the northwest coast of California. With their epicenters offshore, south of Petrolia, this earthquake created a great deal of damage to the small towns of the area, including Ferndale, Fortuna, Petrolia, Rio Dell, and Scotia. Luckily, no-one was killed by the quakes themselves.

     This paper reports on aspects of the research we at the Center for Hazards Research (CHR) at California State University, Chico, have been conducting on the Los Angeles earthquake of January, 1994, and the Humboldt County earthquakes of April, 1992. Our research, together with that of Susan Place of the CHR (1995), traces the perceptual and behavioral linkag- es among the two disasters, the representation of these events in local print media, local residents' mental maps of earthquake damages, and the spatial and temporal allocation of emergency response, recovery, and reconstruction activities. In this work, we are developing a conceptual framework integrating Herman's and Chomsky's propaganda model of media (1988); Wisner's integrated systems approach to hazard risk analysis (1994); Blaikie's et al. structural model of vulnerability (1994); the "acceleration hypothesis" of Bates et al. (1963); Palm's hazard perception work with earthquakes (1990, 1981; Palm et al., 1990); and the Haas, Kates, and Bowden model of disaster reconstruction timelines (1977). In this paper, our focus is the relationship between the socio-economic and ethnic characteristics of communities and their abilities to recover from disaster.

     Earthquakes, floods, wildfires, hurricanes, and other such events are not disasters or natural hazards as things-in-themselves (Alexander, 1991; Burton and Kates, 1964; Burton, Kates, and White, 1978; Blaikie et al., 1994; and Wisner, 1991). A natural event becomes a natural hazard or disaster only when it interacts with a society arranged in space so as to expose portions of its population or assets to the forces unleashed in that event. We are especially interested in socio-economic and ethnic varia- tions in vulnerability to disaster.

     The first section of this paper reviews relevant background concepts in prior hazards work in geography and related discplines, while the second presents the hypotheses guiding this study. The third section sketches the data and methods we used to evaluate these hypotheses. The fourth section presents the results, and the fifth section discusses their significance for hazards theory. The conclusion draws out implications for emergency management and response personnel and for journalists and ends with questions raised by the results of this project.


Natural Hazards in Prior Literature

     Natural hazards are the subject of research by scholars in a great variety of disciplines. The natural sciences generally focus on the physical generation of the extreme events themselves, while engineers concentrate on structural mitigations to various hazards. The concern here is the social science approach to hazards.

     The classic social science literature on natural hazards stems from the work of White (1942, 1964), Kates (1962), and Burton and Kates (1964). Its focus is largely on the following three themes: (1) social and individual vulnerability to natural hazard; (2) perceptions of risk on the part of potential victims; and (3) behavioral responses to perceived or experienced hazard on the part of individuals and agencies.

     Tacit in this approach is an individualistic, even atomistic, conception of society. Society and its institutions are depicted as comprised of individuals, who try more or less rationally to optimize their private benefit to cost ratios in their behavior toward potentially hazardous situations (Watts, 1983). Much attention is given to individual awareness of hazards, individual choices to live or work in hazardous situations, and individual decisions on mitigating hazards through such actions as taking out flood or earthquake insurance (Blanchard, 1993; Cook, 1993; Lansana, 1993; Palm, 1990; Palm and Hodgson, 1992; Sorkin, 1982).

     By the late 1970s, another approach emerged in the work of those doing work on natural hazards in Third World contexts (Liverman, 1989; Rivers, 1982; Susman, O'Keefe, and Wisner, 1983; Watts, 1983; Wisner, 1991; Wisner, Westgate, and O'Keefe, 1976). This approach focusses on the structuring of individuals into groupings based on certain common interests, which quite often conflict with the interests of various other classes. Classes are not equal in power, so the dominant classes and groups can impose constraints on the behavioral options of subordinated classes and groups, making them highly vulnerable to the effects of an extreme event.

     In the Third World contexts in which this approach evolved, such research has focussed on the concept of marginality and its connections with vulnerability (Susman, O'Keefe, and Wisner, 1983). In other words, it is the marginalized, the poor and powerless, who are most vulnerable to natural hazards. Such vulnerability expresses social and economic con- straints on their abilities to live or work in less hazardous places. For many of the most marginalized in the poorest countries, it is a question of living and working in a hazardous place or not working and living at all. The marginalized members of society, too, have the fewest resources to evade, withstand, or recover from natural hazards (Wisner, 1991). Because of the political powerlessness of the marginalized, socio-political mechanisms for assisting the stricken and rebuilding damaged infrastructure will be tardier in poorer areas than in more prosperous ones (Rovai, 1993; Susman, O'Keefe, and Wisner, 1983). We evaluate this line of argument in the context of the two California earthquakes.



     Prior work on hazards dealing with the structuration of vulnerability assumes that the risk of hazard falls overwhelmingly on the poor and marginalized of a society. Susman, O'Keefe, and Wisner write that "Vulnerability is the degree to which different classes in society are differentially at risk, both in terms of the probability of occurrence of an extreme physical event and the degree to which the community absorbs the effects of extreme physical events and helps different classes to recover...And poor people are generally more vulnerable than rich ones" (1983, 264). In order more fully to address the concepts raised by structural hazards theory in the context of the Los Angeles and Humboldt County earthquakes, it is necessary to differentiate between risk and vulnerability, which have generally been conflated in this literature (Rodrigue, 1993).

     Risk is actual and direct exposure to the destructive aspects of a natural event: losing one's home, assets, mementos, and, quite possibly, one's life, health, or loved ones in an earthquake. Vulnerability could usefully be defined as low capacity to evade, withstand, or recover from a disastrous event through personal resources or societal mechanisms of risk mitigation. The first is a statistical concept; the second is a social, economic, political, and, sometimes, a cultural one. All households in most of California indeed are at risk to earthquake, but they are not equally vulnerable due to differential access to attention and assistance.

     At the household level, obviously, households with high incomes and net worths have personal resources (if not always sufficient motivation) to learn about earthquake hazard and mitigate their exposure through occupation of better-built homes and purchase of earthquake insurance. After an earthquake, their greater education levels and sophistication in dealing with bureaucracy and paperwork are likelier to yield more timely and effective assistance from a variety of governmental and private sources. Fur- ther exacerbating differences in vulnerability, local and national media tend to focus their coverage on the plight of the better-off, rather than of a more representative cross-section of victims in a disaster (Davis, 1995a; Place, 1995; Place and Rodrigue, 1994; Rodrigue, 1995, 1994; Rovai and Rodrigue, 1994; Rovai, 1995, 1993).

     Evaluated here are the following hypotheses. First, both in Los Angeles and in Humboldt County, wealthier communities will garner more media attention. Second, communities receiving excess media attention will be further along in the process of recovery than poorer communities.


Data and Methods

     For the largely rural Humboldt County area, it was decided to compare and contrast two communities that were hit equally hard in monetary damages and were also socio-economically different from one another. Ferndale and Rio Dell were selected, based on the local knowledge of Eugenie Rovai, who grew up in Humboldt County. Each community incurred about $10 million in damages. Ferndale is widely known as a charming tourist town with many elegantly restored Victorian homes. By contrast, Rio Dell is a downwardly transitional town originally settled by Italian blue-collar workers at the Scotia lumber mill nearby. It now suffers high unemployment due to the decline in the lumber industry and is also experiencing in-migration of welfare recipients. Data on the specific demographic characteristics were sought from the 1990 U.S. Census.

     Data on inspection status were collected in hard-copy form for the cities of Rio Dell and Ferndale in Humboldt County. These data came from the ATC-20 damage evaluation forms provided by the Applied Technology Council for engineering inspections. The ATC-20 forms provide three address-specific classifications for extent of damage. Red-tagged buildings are unsafe for human entry and occupance; yellow-tagged buildings are unsafe for more than limited and supervised entry pending repairs; and green-tagged buildings are safe for human entry and occupance, though they may have suffered extensive cosmetic damage.

     Information on media attention and recovery was drawn from local print media, including Times Standard, The Lumberjack, and The Union, the regional paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, and interviews with public officials, utilities personnel, and private business owners. The data collected consisted of reports concerning societal responses to the disaster. These responses were classified into three categories proposed by Haas, Kates, and Bowden (1977). The first of these comprises emergency response activities, such as search and rescue, evacuations, the establishment of tent cities, the provision of meals and shelter by such charitable organizations as the Salvation Army and Red Cross, and the clearance of rubble from major transportation arteries. The second category is made up of recovery activities, including the restoration of water and power service, establishment of disaster application centers, distribution of checks from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the closing of tent cities. The third constitutes reconstruction activities, such as the rebuilding of demolished structures and the undertaking of projects that return the infrastructure in the area to predisaster levels or better. Socio- economically, this phase is marked by the replacement of the displaced population, the job base, and capital stock. Haas, Kates, and Bowden (1977) claim that there is a logarithmic relationship among these categories, such that the recovery phase normally takes about ten times as long as the emergency response phase and the reconstruction phase takes ten times as long as the recovery phase. While the logarithmic relationship among these phases has generated some controversy (Berke et al., 1993), the categories are useful in the differentiation of recovery rates between disparate communities, and that is the spirit in which this model is used here. Timelines of response, recovery, and reconstruction, then, were established for the two communities of Rio Dell and Ferndale.

     Further information on recovery in Rio Dell and Ferndale was obtained from a survey of all residents and business occupants of damaged buildings, which was conducted in February, 1995. Respondents were asked whether they used various sources of private and governmental assistance and how far they were along the road to full recovery, expressed subjectively as a percentage.

     The megacity context (Wisner, 1994) of Los Angeles proved less tractable to the methodologies used in Humboldt County. Timelines cannot be constructed for the Los Angeles area because of significant media skewing (Rodrigue, 1995) in the communities covered: too few references were made to poorer and minority communities to be able to establish timelines. To get at recovery rates in the city, longitudinal use was made of building inspection data.

     Data on the inspection status of buildings were collected from the Los Angeles City Department of Building and Safety (1994a, 1994b). These data list by address the condition of over 90,000 inspected buildings: red-tagged, yellow- tagged, or green-tagged. The database is revised weekly to reflect new building inspections, the bulldozing of red-tagged buildings, and the repair, re-inspection, and green-tagging of yellow-tagged buildings. The database is then made available for purchase in compressed ASCII format at $100 per edition. Two different editions of this were purchased: April 26 and August 12. The addresses were sorted by zip code and then aggregated by community name (zips correspond closely with community in Los Angeles). To get a rough idea of recovery rates, the rates of change from the April to the August databases were calculated. Smaller percentage reductions imply a more slowly recovering community, and larger percentage reductions suggest a more rapidly recovering community. As with Rio Dell and Ferndale, the demographics for all zip-code defined communities in the City of Los Angeles were taken from the 1990 Census after allocation of Census tracts to zips.

     Data on media attention were collected from the Los Angeles Times, which is the dominant English-language newspaper in the Los Angeles area and a major national paper. All place name references in all articles originating on the front page were counted throughout the first month after the quake. These place name references generated a geography of print media emphasis, which was then compared to the geography of damaged buildings in the City of Los Angeles using a correlation and simple linear regression methodology. Extreme residuals in the relationship of media attention on building damage were further examined for relationships with ethnicity, income, and recovery rates, using Z-tests of proportions.



     While local residents of Humboldt County usually refer to this quake as the "Humboldt County Quake" or the "North Coast Quake," the earthquake wound up with a different name in media, especially those outside the local area. In television coverage and in the San Francisco Chronicle, this was refered to as the "Ferndale Quake," despite the fact that Ferndale is not the community nearest the epicenter. The community closest to the epicenter is the modest and rather countercultural town of Petrolia, and Rio Dell is located equidistant from the epicenter as Ferndale.

     Table 1 depicts the demographic characteristics of Rio Dell and Ferndale. As expected, Ferndale does have higher median household income, education levels, and professional and white collar employment than Rio Dell, and lower rates of unemployment, public assistance, and blue collar employment. These demographic contrasts echo the visual impression created by the two towns: Ferndale, with its quaint Victorian village atmosphere and touristic retailing, is clearly more upscale than Rio Dell, with its tiny, often poorly maintained homes and downmarket retailing.

     Figure 1 shows the timelines constructed for Rio Dell and Ferndale. The Y axis represents intensity of activities classified as response, recovery, or reconstruction related, as measured by the relative number of events described for a given date by media and interviews. It is quite apparent that Rio Dell is lagging markedly behind Ferndale for all three phases of disaster recovery. Impressions from the field confirm the findings of the timelines. Rio Dell still has many boarded- up homes and businesses, and there has been a remarkable turnover in the population: 15 percent of current residents and businesses were not there for the earthquake. Ferndale's physical appearance has been restored to its attractive condition before the quake, and there has been little turnover in the residents and businesses.

     Interviews suggest that people in Ferndale benefitted from the media focus on the town in reporting the quake and from their greater sophistication in dealing with governmental and insurance bureaucracies to ensure access to assistance. People in Ferndale who were there for the quake reported a higher percentage of recovery to their original state before the quake than did such residents in Rio Dell. An interesting point made by several respondents was that governmental assistance in the form of low interest loans did not really represent recovery from the disaster, since they added large indebtedness to the households that received such help. In fact, a number commented that they did not seek such assistance, because they did not want to incur uncomfortable levels of debt. Though they were not asked any questions about the relative recovery of the two communities, several respondents in both towns volunteered comments on Ferndale's nearly complete recovery and Rio Dell's still devastated appearance. Several of these explained that Ferndale was richer and "cuter" than Rio Dell, which helped the former recover faster.

     The bias in earthquake naming is seen in Los Angeles, too. The epicenter was actually well within Reseda, a modest and downwardly transitional San Fernando Valley community (per capita income is $15,142), yet the media quickly baptized this the "Northridge Quake." Northridge, north of Reseda, is a considerably more upscale community (per capita income is $24,122).

     Comparison of the geography of damage with that of Times attention further suggests skewing. In Los Angeles, there was a correlation of 0.58 between the total number of damaged buildings by community in the April, 1994, Building and Safety database and the number of Times community mentions. The pattern of damage, then, explains only 34 percent of the variation in Times mentions (Table 2). Analysis of the residuals, or departures of actual media attention from expected coverage, points at income and ethnicity as possible influences on media.

     High positive residuals in this regression (i.e., > 5.0) represent excessively high media attention to a community in relation to the building damage suffered by that community. High negative residuals (< -5.0) comprise communities that received much too little Times attention in comparison to the building damage they suffered. Of the 36 communities in the City of Los Angeles that had significant damage or at least one mention in the Los Angeles Times, 8 received excessive media attention: Northridge, Panorama City, Brentwood, Sunland, Pacific Palisades, Tujunga, Sun Valley, and Westwood. Nine were seriously undercovered: South Central, Crenshaw, Chatsworth, Woodland Hills, Sherman Oaks, West Adams, Mid-City, Echo Park/Silverlake/Atwater Village, and Los Feliz.

     Media attention does seem skewed by ethnicity: the mean percentage of non- Hispanic whites in the 8 overcovered communities was 61.2%; the mean percentage of non-Hispanic whites in the 9 undercovered communities was 21.7% (Table 3). Media attention also appears biased by income: the mean per capita incomes in the overcovered communities was $26,069 and, in the undercovered communities, mean per capita incomes was only $14,145.

     Rather disturbing is the association between media attention, itself skewed by ethnicity and race and by income, and rates of recovery. Among the 8 overcovered communities, 835 buildings were red-tagged or yellow-tagged, as of April, 1994. By August, there were only 485 buildings still in a damaged condition, creating a crude recovery rate of -41.9%. Among the 9 undercovered communities, however, 3,066 buildings were red- or yellow-tagged in April and 2,030 in August, yielding a much slower recovery rate of -33.8%. The average April to August recovery rate for the whole city was 36.4%. The overcovered communities were, thus, recovering much more quickly than average, while the undercovered communities were recovering somewhat more slowly than average.



     As stated in the first hypothesis, wealthier communities received more media attention both in Humboldt County and in Los Angeles. Expressions of this bias in Humboldt County included the media calling this quake the "Ferndale Quake," despite the epicenter being closest to the community of Petrolia. Also, most print media lavished much attention on Ferndale and none on Rio Dell, a community hit with the same dollar damage and much greater infrastructural damage. In Los Angeles, the earthquake was dubbed the "Northridge Quake," when the epicenter was in Reseda, not in North- ridge. Los Angeles Times coverage only partially followed the geography of damaged buildings. Departures from expected coverage levels show a significant bias toward non-Hispanic white and wealthier communities.

     The second hypothesis argued that communities receiving excess media attention will be further along in the process of recovery than poorer communities. In Humboldt County, this effect produced different timelines of response, recovery, and reconstruction between Ferndale and Rio Dell, with the more prosperous and photogenic Ferndale moving through the process noticeably faster than the poverty-stricken Rio Dell. In Los Angeles, communities overcovered by the Times showed a more dramatic decline in the number of damaged buildings left standing or unrepaired than did the undercovered communities.



     Hazard literature developed in Third World contexts argues that, within a society characterized by polarization in wealth and power, it is the poor and marginalized who are vulnerable to natural hazards. It is they who are most likely to have to live or work in hazard-prone areas, and it is they who are least able to bear the losses of a hazard and the costs of recovery (Liverman, 1990; Susman, O'Keefe, and Wisner, 1983; Watts, 1983; Wisner, 1991; Wisner, Westgate, and O'Keefe, 1976). This paper demonstrates the validity of this interpretation in the contexts of two recent earthquakes in California: the massive urban earthquake in Los Angeles in 1994 and the comparably violent quake affecting the much more rural North Coast in 1992.

     This paper has troubling ramifications. First, media narratives of disaster are not particularly reliable in their representation of damages in socio-economically and ethnically diverse areas, which fits well the expectations of media critics (Herman and Chomsky, 1988; Bagdikian, 1992; Davis, 1995a, 1995b; Lee and Solomon, 1991; Steinem, 1990; Smith, 1992). Second, the socio-economic structure, together with and reinforced by media, clearly affect the abilities of communities to recover from disaster: poorer communities recover more slowly than more prosperous (especially whiter) ones. Third, emergency and disaster management personnel must develop alternative means of assessing the hardest-hit areas immediately after a disaster, rather than rely on local papers, Associated Press, or other media sources. Given that poorer and minority areas are undercovered, emergency response and recovery personnel coming in from outside the region might obtain maps of Census data to identify potentially vulnerable areas and independently go to such areas to assess needs there. Fourth, this paper is one more cry in the critical woods for reporters and editors to confront their own biases and ameliorate their effects in their representations of disasters or any other news item.

     A few avenues of further research are in order. It is not yet clear in our work what the specific mechanism is that links socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and media biases to the disparate rates of recovery seen in this paper. Do the slow recovery patterns in more marginalized areas result from bias in media attention as it affects emergency response and recovery personnel? Do they instead reflect biases on the part of such personnel independently of the media? Do they have nothing to do with biases in media and response personnel but rather show the effects of different education levels in dealing with complicated emergency assistance applications? Do they perhaps show that poorer and non-white households are less .palikely to qualify for assistance for reasons independent of any of the above effects?

     Also, work is needed to establish whether the patterns shown in these two California earthquakes emerge in other disasters, such as the Loma Prieta earthquake, the severe floods of 1993-95 in various parts of the country, several recent hurricanes, and disasters in other national contexts (such as the Kobe Earthquake of 1995). For us, an ongoing problem is applying the timeline model to the many disparate communities of the Greater Los Angeles Area, when media coverage cannot be relied on as a primary source of data in timeline construction. With a CHR colleague, Susan Place, we are looking at the differences and similarities in media representation of the "Northridge" earthquake among the multilingual media of Los Angeles, in order to see whether Spanish or other language media follow the Times' lead and echo its biases, impose their own biases, or do a better job (Place and Rodrigue, 1994).



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  [ response, recovery, reconstruction timelines for Rio Dell and 
Ferndale ]


Table 1.  Population and Housing Characteristics


                                                  Ferndale         Rio Dell

   Median household                                $25,875          $19,331
   Per capita                                      $13,504          $ 9,559

Educational Attainment
   0 to 12th grade, no diploma                         11%              37%
   College or professional degree                      39%               9%

Occupational Employment Structure
   Managerial and professional specialty               32%               5%
   Operators, fabricators, and laborers                10%              29%

Industrial Employment Structure
   Agriculture, forestry, and fisheries                 8%               3%
   Manufacturing, durable goods                         5%              33%
   Professional and related services                   27%              12%

Unemployment: Labor force not employed                  3%              18%

Public Assistance
   Population receiving public assistance               8%              25%
   Aggregated public assistance                   $219,062       $1,700,000

Median Home Value                                 $111,700          $67,100
Source:  E. Rovai, from U.S. Census, 1990


Table 2.  Correlation and Simple Linear Regression of Los Angeles Times Place Name 
Mentions on Damaged Buildings (26 April 1994) by Community

X                  Y                        
                                              r       r       t       b       a     

Total number of    LA Times  front          0.581   0.338   4.167   0.067  -5.212 
damaged  build-    page    article   
ings (April 26)    place mentions                           P=.00
                   in 1st month      

Sources:  L.A. Department of Building and Safety (1994a)
          C.M. Rodrigue content analysis of LA Times (1994)


Table 3.  The Ethnicity, Income, and Recovery Rates of Communities  Overcovered and 
Undercovered by the Los Angeles Times


Residuals of Los Angeles        
Times place mentions  on        | # of    | % non- |  per      | % rate   |
April counts of  damaged        | commun- | Hisp.  |  capita   |   of     |
buildings                       |  ities  | white  |  income   | recovery |
                                |         |        |           |          |
Overcovered communities         |         |        |           |          |
(residuals > +5.000)            |   8     |  61.2  |  $26,069  |  -41.9   |
                                |         |        |           |          |
Undercovered communities        |         |        |           |          |
(residuals < -5.000)            |   9     |  21.7  |  $14,145  |  -33.8   |
                                |         |        |__         |          |
                                |         |           |        |          |
                                |         | Z=244.560 | no std |  Z=4.326 |
                                |         |           |  dev   |          |
                                |         | P=  0.000 |  data  |  P=0.000 |

Source: C.M. Rodrigue 1994


This paper is based on a conference presentation originally given at the
1995 National Social Science Association meeting in San Diego.


  Authors' current positions and contacts:

Eugenie Rovai, Associate Professor
Director, Center for Hazards Research
California State University
Chico, CA 95929-0425

Christine M. Rodrigue
Professor of Geography
California State University
Long Beach, CA 90840-1101


Document maintained by Christine M. Rodrigue, Ph.D.
Submitted for publication to NSSA Journal 1998
Accepted for publication 1998
Permission granted to republish on Web: 01/15/01
First placed on Web: 02/15/01
Last revised: 02/18/01