You’d Think I’d Be Used to This Kind of Thing
By Cory Bilicko
Being a Southern man who relocated to So Cal almost exactly 15 years ago, my experience with seismic activity is rather limited. In fact, my earliest recollection of “California” is from an early-1970s television program about earthquakes. It showed an animated graphic of the United States with California a puzzle piece breaking off (perfectly along the borders too) and floating into the Pacific. I was five. I was terrified.
Yet somehow I ended up in the doomed state, biding my time. I’ve experienced a few minor quakes, even a rolling one that made me feel as if I needed Dramamine. I’ve been in a nightclub when an earthquake hit and patrons started cheering, throwing the gauntlet to Mother Nature.
Last Wednesday, our newspaper’s Deadline Day, with Haiti images still fresh and lingering in my thoughts, I sat at my work computer, finishing one of the last stories for the week, when I heard a vigorous rumbling. Instantly, Kelly, our design editor, appeared at my door with saucer eyes and “That’s a big earthquake!”
It was then that I took flight, with a mission to be free from within the two-story building’s first floor that housed the ‘Signal Tribune’ offices. However, before I’d made it out the door, we heard a different noise. I looked up and saw waterfalls pouring in through the panels of the ceiling.
I resumed flight, this time determined to take everyone with me. “Get out! Get out! Get out!” was all that came out of my mouth as I soared down the hall toward the front door. When I’d arrived safely onto the sidewalk near the street, I was relieved to see that all my co-workers were there with me; folks in the building’s other businesses also poured out as fast as the water had come in.
It became one of those moments when you see how different people handle crises differently: some get really scared and keep informing you of that fear; some grab a cell phone and start making calls; some joke; some smoke. Apparently, I somehow get tunnel-vision focused on what I can do to help, balanced by an awareness of potential dangers. Call me brave or call me stupid— I was compelled to go back in for our computers, or else we’d have no newspaper to print.
I announced my intention, no one protested and I ventured back into our offices, which were now completely flooded. I was ankle-deep in water. It didn’t take long for me to realize what a bad idea it would be to unplug computer equipment that was still powered on while I was standing in water. I grabbed a few cell phones and headed back out.
Since our publisher, Neena, had promptly called 9-1-1, the L.A. County Fire Department was soon there, accessing the circuit breaker and cutting the electricity off. Having the risk factors reduced by about half, I ventured back into the building. More ceiling panels had fallen, and the water volume had doubled. After I’d managed to retrieve two computers and make it out in one wet piece, others, including co-workers, firefighters, Signal Hill Police Department officers and the building owner’s staff, made their ways in and saved more of our equipment. Thanks to their courage and assistance, we were able to salvage enough to rescue that week’s Signal Tribune issue. Kelly took his work computer and external hard drive home and finished producing it.
To me, their serene, functioning environment was a temporary refuge where we could feel safe, stay dry and get our heads back on, but it also served to remind us how, just the day before, we’d been stripped of our own work space. But that awareness promptly gave way to another notion– we weren’t “out of business.” We were just temporarily “homeless.”
It didn’t take long for the offers of help to arrive: our advertisers, friends, neighbors, city leaders, local businesses and community leaders called, emailed and stopped by, letting us know we weren’t in this mess alone. Because of all these selfless, giving people, we’ve already begun “setting up shop” across the street from where we’d been, and we’re still here to serve our readers.
It’s this support system that has made me rethink my idea of what a “community newspaper” is. The Signal Tribune does indeed strive to serve the community, but without that community there to throw us life-preservers when we need them, you wouldn’t have the paper you’re reading now.