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First California, now Japan: The longest roads to healing

Los Angeles. Another disaster strikes, and immediately we assess the numbers: 7.2 magnitude, $20 billion in damage, 600 dead... 1,700... 3,000... and counting.

A powerful earthquake has shaken Japan, and now we're glued to CNN: We survey the wreckage and try to quantify the misery. For those of us in California, Kobe is a stunning reminder of Northridge, the quake that struck exactly one year earlier.

I shudder as I think about the dreadful process Japan is now beginning. Aftershocks. Broken buildings. Lack of water and power. A road to recovery, stretching for months or years.

In my own recollection, last Jan. 17 is yesterday. Even after a year of rebuilding, I can recall those early morning hours in precise detail. The initial jolt, which shook me from my bed. The realization of danger, which spurred me to action. The sense, only much later, of tremendous loss. Amid the visions of fright, sadness and relief, I also remember the numbers.

Minutes after the Northridge quake, a frenzied neighbor knocked on my door. "How big was it?" he demanded. Before I could answer, he added, "It must've been an eight." As in magnitude 8.0, what the experts call a "great" quake--or simply the Big One.

As damage estimates soared, I, too, relied on the numbers. If this earthquake was going to cost up to $30 billion, if this earthquake was going to be the most expensive natural disaster in American history, then surely I was justified in my sense of loss.

Later, the magnitude was said to be 6.7. The damage estimate was lowered to $20 billion.

Did these figures invalidate our emotions?

Last Tuesday, as I pondered Northridge and Kobe, I realized that numbers can never tell us the real story of disaster. Does the actual size or cost of a disaster really matter? It is, I suppose, only natural to try to measure our grief. After all, if we can quantify, we can hope to understand. But human emotions are not so simple, and tragedy cannot be quantified.

If your home is a pile of rubble, it probably doesn't matter whether the overall damage is in millions or billions.

If you've lost a loved one, the magnitude of an earthquake is irrelevant.

Thousands of people die every day in this country, yet we hardly ever take notice. Why, then, do we mourn large-scale tragedy? Because it seems less predictable? Because it overwhelms us? Because we have an attachment to a particular place or people?

Tuesday morning, these questions swirled in my mind. At the fateful hour of 4:31 a.m., when one year earlier the earth shook beneath us, I stood on a cold windy sidewalk with 500 strangers.

We joined together--people of all faiths and backgrounds--to share in our remembrance of last January 17.

Some people had been able to heal their emotional scars quickly. Others were still torn apart.

Some, like me, wanted long ago to believe that we had conquered our fears, only later to find that we hadn't.

Two weeks after the earthquake, I decided that it was time to put my angst behind me. That was fine, except that I would later spend a month living in a hotel during repairs to my home. Even now, the sound of hammers emanates from next door. On one corner of my block, all four apartment complexes are surrounded by chain link fences. They are in varying stages of repair; rubble is piled on the edges of the street.

With so many reminders, it's been hard to move forward. For the most part, I'd been successful--until last Sunday. On that night I hardly slept. It was the night before the day before the anniversary and it brought back every fear I'd felt for the past twelve months.

I wondered if I was falling back into fright.

In the four o'clock hour of Tuesday morning, though, I didn't feel any of these concerns. I was saddened by the thought of those who died and my thoughts turned also to Japan.

It was a sober experience, but not an overwhelming one. I didn't burst into tears at 4:31. My body didn't shudder.

I simply caught my breath and paused to reflect.

As I left the sidewalk gathering, I spotted a bright, full moon in one corner of the sky. In another corner a star blazed like a diamond. Together they lit the sky, even before the sun's warm came shining through.

I was ready to start the new year.

Jason Greenwald, Trinity '93, is a former editor of The Chronicle and currently lives in Los Angeles.


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