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Many Westporters felt this afternoon’s 5.9 magnitude earthquake, centered in Virginia.

I missed it.  The earth shook, apparently, but not enough to disturb me and my computer.

That’s fine.

In January 1994 I was in the Northridge quake — California’s most destructive since San Francisco in 1906, and the costliest earthquake ever in US history.

In fact, I was just a couple of miles from the epicenter.

I’d gotten to my hotel late that night.  Around 4:30 a.m., a plane crashed into the building.

At least, that’s what it felt like.

A bit of damage from the 1994 Northridge quake.

After several seconds of phenomenal noise — the earth moving, furniture breaking, the hotel jolting — I realized it was not a plane crash, but an earthquake.

Semi-awake, I vaguely recalled something about a doorway.  But I couldn’t remember:  get under one, or away from one?

It didn’t matter.  I was tossed around in my bed like a salad, and couldn’t get out.

Finally — a looooong 30 seconds later — it stopped.

I rushed to the balcony.  That was not the brightest move — it might not have been there — but luckily it was.

I felt foolish.  Perhaps I’d overreacted.  After all, Californians get hit with earthquakes all the time.

But I saw a guy standing on the balcony next to mine.  He was ashen-faced.

“Wow!” he said.  “I’ve lived in California all my life.  That was by far the worst!”

Then I heard the noise.  Every car alarm, burglar alarm and fire alarm in the area was going off.  The cacophony was incredible.

And smoke wafted over the Hollywood Hills.

The next few hours were tough.  Aftershocks came without warning.  I’d be walking down the street, trying to find a working phone or my rental car or something, and the ground would shake.  Not as bad as the first quake — but when an aftershock starts, who knows?

It would subside.  I’d start walking again.

Then a few seconds later:  bam!  A plate glass window would land at my feet.

Until I finally flew home 3 days later, I was constantly on edge.

So was everyone else in L.A.  And they had to stay there.

The epicenter of today's earthquake.

An earthquake is unlike any other natural disaster.  We get advance warnings of blizzards and hurricanes (hello, Irene!).  Even tornadoes signal their arrival with a sharp change in air pressure.

But earthquakes come completely out of the blue.

And they come from below.  The one fact that we know — the earth is firm — is shaken to the core.

So I’m glad I did not feel today’s earthquake.  Every time I read of a quake — in Haiti, Iran, Macedonia, wherever — I think of my experience in California, nearly 2 decades ago.

I now have a profound appreciation for the damage earthquakes can do.

And a solid understanding of the phrase “all shook up.”

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