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Northridge Earthquake Anniversary: 'The epicenter's in my backyard'

Joe Sauer, 70, has lived in this home in Reseda for more than 40 years. The epicenter of the Northridge Earthquake was in his backyard.
Joe Sauer, 70, has lived in this home in Reseda for more than 40 years. The epicenter of the Northridge Earthquake was in his backyard.
John Rabe

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Joe Sauer knew he faced the strong possibility of an earthquake when he moved into his house in Reseda* in 1971.

"This whole valley is susceptible to earthquakes," he said. "I've always known that. I'm a native Californian, so I know where the faults are."

But the epicenter of the Northridge Earthquake — a 6.7 magnitude disaster that killed 57 and injured thousands, did more than $20 billion dollars damage, ruined or damaged thousands of buildings, and closed some freeways for months — was in Joe Sauer's backyard.

Sauer lives in a one-story ranch house near the corner of Elkwood Street and Baird Avenue, off Reseda Blvd., and he still vividly remembers being woken at 4:31 a.m. on January 17, 1994. He speaks about it in telegraphs.

"Disaster. Very, very, very, scary. Things came crashing down. It wasn't a very pleasant time. I just stayed in bed. Rode it out. I didn't realize how much damage it did around the house. There was a lot of interior damage. Interior damage meaning everything fell down, especially in the kitchen. There was at least a foot of glass and everything on the floor instead of in the cupboards where they belonged."

Sauer says nothing important was damaged; his family was fine, including two young daughters. The neighborhood was calm; nobody slept outdoors for fear of aftershocks.

He points out an important earthquake fact: While it's interesting that his backyard was the epicenter, it's not very important, in the big scheme of things.

"By the time it reaches the surface, it shakes the outer area more so than the epicenter," said Sauer. In fact, some of the worst damage from the Northridge earthquake was far from the epicenter.

By the way, Sauer doesn't think he'll have any problem selling the house with the epicenter in the backyard when he's ready to move.

This is one in a weeklong series of stories on KPCC leading up to Friday's 20th anniversary of the devastating 1994 Northridge Earthquake. The series will explore the quake's history, its effects and its legacy. You can view more stories on our Northridge Anniversary page. Let us know what you think on our Facebook page, on Twitter ("@" mention @KPCC) and in the comments below.

*UPDATE 1/13/2014 : This story has been edited to reflect that Sauer's home, and the earthquake epicenter, is actually half a mile into the community of Reseda, not Northridge.