Governing Through a Disaster

Lessons from the 1994 Northridge Earthquake

Kate Gordon and John Emerson outline three key lessons from the 1994 Northridge Earthquake that can guide the BP response and actions in future disasters.

A gas main burns even as water from broken water mains flood a portion of Balboa Blvd. in Los Angeles Monday morning, Jan. 17, 1994. (AP/Lenny Ignelzi)
A gas main burns even as water from broken water mains flood a portion of Balboa Blvd. in Los Angeles Monday morning, Jan. 17, 1994. (AP/Lenny Ignelzi)

The BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico may be the worst environmental accident ever to hit U.S. shores. But it is by no means the only disaster. America’s short history has been rife with natural and manmade environmental disasters that have tested our nation’s ability to balance economic and environmental interests—from the San Francisco earthquake, to the Dust Bowl, to the Exxon Valdez spill.

The federal government plays a critical role in keeping this balance. The government can stand removed from the immediate disaster and take more of a long view, weighing short-term response against long-term planning, and sending resources to the hardest-hit communities without regard to local politics. The federal government also has far more resources and systems in place to deal with disasters than even the most well-off city or state.

The Obama administration has deployed nearly 6,500 vessels and more than 17,000 National Guard troops to the Gulf states to help with oil containment and cleanup in the days since the BP Deepwater Horizon blew up, for instance. The administration has also engaged numerous countries and organizations around the globe in a far-reaching effort to engage the best minds in the world on how to stop the leak and clean up the gulf. These are actions that no state could hope to coordinate on its own.

But what role is the most useful role for the government to play when responding to a local disaster? And how can and should that role shift over time? It is useful to look at past disasters where the government’s role has been generally lauded for guidance to these questions. One such disaster is the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The quake, which hit the Los Angeles region on January 17, immediately killed more than 60 people and injured thousands more. Forty thousand people were left in dire need of shelter and food, and the region suffered more than $20 billion in damage overall.

The Clinton administration’s response to the quake was immediate and extensive, and offers some important lessons for the current gulf disaster and the myriad natural disasters that are sure to occur as our climate heats up and our search for fossil fuels becomes ever-riskier.

Act fast

Disasters are, quite simply, scary. They leave those affected looking for leadership and guidance. The federal government can step in to provide this guidance and help with short- and long-term disaster relief, as well as provide the simple comfort that someone is looking out for displaced or devastated residents.

President Clinton sent key members of the administration out to Los Angeles within hours of the Northridge quake to join with then-mayor Richard Riordan to assess the damage and begin recovery efforts. The president, vice president, and key Cabinet members all flew out to the area three days later for a fully public conference with state and local emergency relief officials and leaders in nonprofit relief efforts. Federal Emergency Management Administration Director James Lee Witt was particularly visible in the days after the quake and held daily press briefings with his California counterpart, the mayor, and HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, who spent long evenings walking through the temporary "tent cities" set up by displaced residents, listening to their stories.

Administration officials revisited the area many times over the next three to six months. Some administration officials were also detailed to stay in the area and help coordinate federal relief activities.

The federal government also took tangible action to get relief funds out quickly. Administration officials immediately implemented an incident command system to facilitate an organized and coordinated response effort along with several disaster application centers that served as "one-stop shops" for earthquake assistance information. The government ës quick response was favored by circumstance: FEMA already had a headquarters set up in Pasadena, just nine miles outside the City of Los Angeles because of fires that had already been raging in the area. The personnel and equipment were immediately dedicated to earthquake relief.

The Obama administration has been similarly quick to respond to the current disaster. The administration worked to contain the immediate environmental damage while BP worked for months to stop the oil gusher. The Coast Guard was the first on the scene to try and save injured workers on the Deepwater Horizon rig, and the administration later appointed Admiral Thad Allen as the National Incident Commander for the entire response. The military has a unique ability to deploy personnel and technology incredibly quickly, and the Coast Guard and National Guard’s strong presence has brought a measure of comfort to Gulf Coast residents—even though several governors in the region have yet to take full advantage of these resources.

The White House has also set up a one-stop resource center for Gulf Coast residents at, with information ranging from how to file a claim with BP or the federal government, to how to volunteer to clean tar balls off coastal beaches.

Be flexible

Another critical lesson from the Northridge quake response is the importance of staying flexible and modifying federal programs to fit the situation at hand. Each disaster is different; each region affected by a disaster has different needs. Tweaking federal government programs to meet these needs can be difficult, but it is critically important in order to provide the most effective and efficient response to any disaster.

The Small Business Administration streamlined its processes to get low-interest disaster loans out to businesses and individuals quickly, approving more than 124,000 loans (totaling about $4 billion). The SBA had a rule in place at the time of the Northridge quake allowing householders to receive disaster loans—low-interest loans to replace real estate damaged in a natural disaster—of up to $250,000. This amount would suffice in many parts of the country in 1994, but in Los Angeles it barely covered half the cost of many of the houses damaged in the quake. The administration responded by immediately raising the loans to between $500,000 and $700,000 per household.

FEMA also gave grants of $3,000 to each displaced family immediately after the quake. Existing regulation required residents to show proof of their displacement before FEMA could issue a check. But the administration decided in this case that the slight risk of fraud was far exceeded by the benefit of quickly distributing aid to those who needed it, and elected to provide the grants immediately, with recipients agreeing to provide proof of displacement when they were able.

Fraud rates for these expedited government programs were remarkably low. A government audit at the end of December 1997 found that only 7.4 percent of SBA’s disaster assistance loans had defaulted. All in all, more than $16 billion in federal funds were poured into the Los Angeles regional economy for relief and rebuilding efforts.

The administration also changed the cap on small business loan assistance, which had been set at $1.5 million for businesses employing fewer than 1,000 people. The San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles (where Northridge is located) was populated with businesses employing several hundred people—and the disaster loan cap forced them to contemplate closing down. The SBA removed the cap after the quake for any business with more than 250 employees, which allowed dozens of businesses to keep on operating

The current oil spill offers a particularly good example of the importance of flexibility. Deepwater drilling companies like BP are liable under the Oil Pollution Act for all cleanup costs, but are only liable for damages to the environment or economy up to $75 million—unless legislation currently on the table in Congress removes the cap. The current spill is projected to cost tens of billions of dollars in damages to coastal wetlands, ocean ecosystems, and the fishing and tourism industries.

The Obama administration recognized this and negotiated a deal with BP to set aside $20 billion in an escrow account to cover legitimate damage claims. This will likely not cover the full cost of damages resulting from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but it will go a good deal further than $75 million, and it will give Gulf Coast residents some comfort that their claims will ultimately be paid.

Plan for the long term

Most disasters happen quickly—in the case of the Northridge earthquake, it was over in only 45 seconds—but cause damage that can last years. One of the most important things the federal government can do in the face of disaster is to take a step back and think about how to rebuild the community in a way that will help insulate against future environmental crises, especially when they are preventable, manmade disasters like in the BP disaster.

The Clinton administration brought key federal officials to Los Angeles for a one-day economic development conference after the Northridge quake. This followed on an earlier economic conference the administration had done in 1993, focusing on recovery after a series of aerospace spending cuts. The post-Northridge conference was modeled on this earlier effort and provided an opportunity to talk about short-term earthquake recovery efforts while highlight longer-term economic development programs and plans put into motion in 1993.

The California state, and Los Angeles city, and county governments ultimately rebuilt key pieces of transportation and urban infrastructure, including the UCLA Hospital, California State University Northridge library, and numerous freeway overpasses. These projects were completed using federal funding support from FEMA and/or the Department of Transportation, and were built to much stronger seismic building standards than had existed before the quake. These projects were a boon to the local economy, creating jobs and economic activity at a time when the Los Angeles economy had been underperforming for several years.

Just as the Northridge quake shattered the built environment in Los Angeles, the BP oil disaster has shattered the natural environment along the already-fragile coastline of the Gulf states, especially Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The Gulf region’s long relationship with the oil and gas industry has led to massive wetland and coastal erosion—erosion that is widely considered to have been a major factor in the devastation following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Gulf Coast can only take so many more beatings before it erodes completely and devastates the entire economy and ecosystem of this embattled region.

Restoring these coastal wetlands must be a priority for the Gulf states, and the current disaster opens the door for a serious conversation about how to accomplish this goal—and perhaps how to hold the oil companies at least partially responsible for the cost of cleanup. The Obama administration could play a key role in convening this conversation.

This disaster at the same time offers an opportunity to talk about this region’s, and the nation’s, overdependence on oil. The United States imports almost 70 percent of our oil. About one-third of that comes from the Gulf of Mexico, and most of this comes from drilling at depths of more than 1,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. Yet oil production from the region has been in steady decline since the early 2000s and has become increasingly difficult to extract. The deepwater oil supply at issue in the BP disaster represents some of the last remaining "technically recoverable" (as opposed to "economically recoverable") oil remaining in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration. Economically recoverable oil is oil that is profitable to extract and sell at market prices. Technically recoverable refers to oil that is technologically possible to recover, but that may be very difficult and expensive to get at, such as the deep water oil well responsible for the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion.

Deepwater drilling worldwide is expected to increase by nearly two-thirds in the next five years, but this disaster has revealed that government does not possess the equipment or expertise to protect the public from a blowout at these extraordinary depths. The government will have to determine whether oil companies themselves should step in and collectively fund the research, development, and deployment of technologies that can help contain future spills. And the government needs the capacity to effectively respond as long as oil companies are not fully liable for restoring communities and our environment after such disasters.

It is not sustainable to keep drilling deeper and more dangerous holes to find scarcer and scarcer oil. The current moment is the perfect time to start a serious conversation about moving away from oil and toward a broad array of oil-savings measures such as higher fuel-efficiency standards and incentives to use alternative fuels such as natural gas and advanced biofuels.


Natural and environmental disasters are part of the American landscape, and unfortunately, they will likely intensify as the planet becomes warmer and less stable. The federal government has a key role to play when disaster strikes as a first responder and as one of the few entities with the critical distance, expertise, and power to help regions rebuild and become stronger over the long term. The 1994 Northridge earthquake, though very different in cause and scope than the BP oil disaster, offers some lessons for an effective federal government response.

Kate Gordon is Vice President for Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress. John Emerson is the former Deputy Assistant to President Clinton in the White House, where he was liaison to the nation’s governors and was responsible for overseeing the administration’s policies impacting the state of California, including the Northridge Earthquake recovery effort. The authors also wish to thank Steven Olikara for contributing research in support of this article.

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Kate Gordon

Senior Fellow