Fact Check

Northridge Quake Underreported

Was the Northridge quake underreported as a 6.7 to get FEMA off the hook?

Published June 6, 2000


Claim:   The magnitude of the 17 January 1994 Northridge earthquake was deliberately under-reported in order to spare the government from having to pay out emergency relief funds.

Status:   False.


[Harvey, 1994]

Urban Myth No. 5,212: It's linked to the earthquake, of course — what isn't these days? The [Los Angeles] Times has heard from several callers who claim there's a conspiracy to hide the fact that the quake's magnitude was really 8.0. One caller quoted an unnamed structural engineer who said that only an 8.0 temblor could have inflicted the damage of the Northridge quake. And why the conspiracy? The unfounded rumor that FEMA is obligated to give outright grants, rather than loans, to damaged houses and businesses after quakes of 8.0 or more.

[Collected on the Internet, 2000]

Right after the Northridge earthquake in 1994, word was going around that the State of California coerced CalTech to declare the magnitude of the earthquake under 7.0. This was due to a hidden clause in the state laws saying state income tax in California is suspended that year for affected areas when there is a major earthquake over 7.0 on the Richter Scale.

Origins:   On 17 January 1994, Los Angeles area residents were shaken awake at 4:31 A.M. by the seismic event that would come to be known as the Northridge quake. In the usual way of earthquakes, those few seconds of violent shaking took a terrible toll. The quake killed 57 people, injured another 9,000, and caused property damage in the $13-$15 billion range. It closed seven freeway sites and two hospitals, and left 150,000 people without water, 40,000 without natural gas, and 25,000 without homes.

It was devastatingly awful. Folks were shocked when the quake was reported to have registered a mere 6.7 on the Richter scale. They were thus prepared to believe almost anything that would confirm the quake's intensity to have been much higher.

After the Northridge quake, a bogus fax on fake Caltech letterhead (misstated as "Cal Tech") was circulated throughout the Los Angeles area. It purportedly assigned an "intensity scale" to different Los Angeles ZIP codes, with the strength

of the quake measured in one ZIP code area listed as a whopping 9.5. The numbers quoted in the fax were, in fact, estimates of the intensity of the shaking around the Los Angeles basin based on the modified Mercalli scale, which uses the Roman numbers I through XII. (The Mercalli scale is a measurement derived from observable earthquake damage; the Richter scale is based on seismometer readings. The Mercalli scale is thus largely a subjective measurement, while the Richter scale is generally considered to be more objective and scientifically accurate.) Parts of Santa Monica and the San Fernando Valley experienced Mercalli IX-level intensity, which was misconstrued on the fax as a 9-level Richter scale measurement (instead of the officially reported 6.7).

Caltech (actually the U.S. Geological Survey at Caltech) had not under-reported the figure — the Northridge quake was a 6.7 no matter who measured it. Earthquake data is almost instantaneously shared among a number of organizations worldwide, and one group's under-reporting the magnitude would have been quickly picked up by the others. Even if Caltech had wanted to suppress the real numbers, it would have been unable to do so without the cooperation of a number of other scientific organizations.

The scary fax played into what people wanted to believe. Those who'd lived through the quake swore it had to have been much stronger than the 6.7 that was being reported. From this belief was the legend born: if Caltech was fudging the magnitude of the event, there had to be a reason. Inventive sorts that humans are, it wasn't long before someone advanced the plausible-sounding explanation that the amount and type of aid provided to disaster victims by the government was predicated upon the severity of the event; by convincing Caltech to under-report, the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) slipped off the hook. According to this rumor, since the quake's intensity was under 7.0, FEMA only had to provide loans to earthquake victims rather than outright grants, which saved the agency billions of dollars.

The rumor, of course, was false. FEMA never gives loans to those disadvantaged by disaster; its assistance comes in the form of grants to those affected. That agency works with the Small Business Administration (SBA), which provides low-interest loans.

Also, FEMA bases its aid on need, not upon a standardized chart that determines how much can be allocated according to what scientists measure. Likewise, insurance companies base their earthquake policy liability on damage estimates, not on magnitude scales. This makes sense — under a system like the one hinted at in the legend, survivors of a large earthquake in a relatively unpopulated zone would be eligible for free aid while those trying cope with the aftermath of a lesser disaster in a far more densely populated area would be saddled with repaying government loan debts (or would receive no financial assistance at all). An extreme hypothetical example could see millions of free dollars directed towards the rebuilding of one house in Alaska while 200,000 uninsured and homeless Californians had do without, all because Alaska was hit by an 8.2 while California had to cope with only a 6.7.

The legend took off the way it did for reasons other than just the usual mistrust of government and science that marks such whispers. Getting up close and personal with the unthinkable heightens the experience, which explains in part why this legend was so widely believed by Los Angeleans: they'd been shaken out of bed and back to reality by this earthquake, whereas they had experienced other large quakes that had taken place in other lands merely as words on a page or images on a television screen. In a world where the ruin of the 6.9 Kobe quake (17 January 1995) was dispassionately presented by the nightly news and barely given a second thought here in California, what the authorities were telling skeptical Los Angeleans was a 6.7 felt like it was more because it had been experienced with all our senses, not just the television-dulled ones.

There was yet another reason for this legend's running rampant: its location. The quake's epicenter was in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, a heavily-populated area, and so felt stronger to many people because those who experienced the sensation were right on top of the worst of it. Additionally, we humans have a desire to star ourselves in the drama of the moment. A 6.7 didn't sound worthy of the harrowing experience endured by those resident on 17 January 1994, and those who'd been through the shake and looked to regale others with their horrific accounts were especially receptive to any suggestion that the figure was far too low.

On a final note, one further rumor attached to FEMA in California: that illegal immigrants who surfaced to apply for disaster relief would be rounded up, handed over to INS, and deported. That rumor did not begin with the Northridge quake, however; it was recorded in the aftermath of the 17 October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco area.

While FEMA's aid is now available only to U.S. citizens, legal residents of the U.S., and the resident parents of U.S. citizens (that is, children born in the USA), at the time of the Loma Prieta quake, the assistance it directed was available to citizens and non-citizens alike. As for alerting the INS to potential illegals, FEMA pointed out at that time that it didn't ask about the citizenship status of aid applicants, with questions about citizenship status not even being presented on any of its forms. (That has since changed — FEMA Form 90-69 is specifically for that purpose.)

Barbara "not a milked shake" Mikkelson

Additional information:

    FEMA   Federal Emergency Management Agency   (FEMA)
    Earthquake Myths (USGS)   Earthquake Myths   (U.S. Geological Survey)

Last updated:   18 July 2007

  Sources Sources:

    Harvey, Steve.   "Only in L.A."

    Los Angeles Times.   2 March 1994   (p. B2).

    Jackson, Robert and Miles Corwin.   "Aid Centers Open But No Money Yet."

    Los Angeles Times.   23 October 1989   (p. A1).

    Mitchell, Sean.   "Warning: The Following L.A. Stories Are Not True."

    Los Angeles Times.   24 November 1996   (Magazine, p. 32).

Article Tags