Northridge Earthquake, Calif., January 17, 1994 -- Buildings, cars and personal property were all destroyed when the earthquake struck. Approximately 114,000 residential and commercial structures were damaged and 57 deaths were attributed to the earthquake. Damage costs were as much as 4 billion. FEMA News Photos - Location: Northridge Earthquake, CA

The 1994 Northridge Earthquake that killed hundreds, injured thousands, and caused billions of dollars of damage was more than a disaster. It was also a teaching moment.

When the 6.7 quake struck the San Fernando Valley 25 years ago, the American Red Cross (ARC) was able to mobilize 14,000 volunteers, and went on to house 22,000 in 47 shelters, serve 1.7 million meals, and provide counseling for an estimated 40,000 people. It has been  responding to emergencies and helping with disaster recovery since being founded in 1881 by Clara Barton.

But the 1994 quake revealed some other ways the organization could improve its services.

Guillermo Sanchez, ARC preparedness and resiliency manager for the Los Angeles region, said officials here better understand the necessity to better identify and cultivate volunteers who can provide local knowledge of an affected area and help increase response time.

“We learned the importance of counting on community volunteers, and that is something we have seen grow,” Sanchez said. “When a big disaster happens, us being able to absorb volunteers that want to help [can create] a work force we didn’t anticipate at first.

“We’ve gotten better at having the mechanism to take in those volunteers, put them back in the community where they live, and be trained to help others.”

No one person or organization can be completely prepared for a disaster like a major earthquake, Sanchez said, not at least until there has been some damage assessment. “But having partnerships in place ahead of time — including community partners, facilities and volunteers — means when something happens we can tap into those resources, and we can respond faster and better.

“We have more agreements now with different facilities, like schools and recreation centers, to use if needed. And certainly more than we had in 1994.”

Sanchez laments the fact the general public often is not prepared for disasters —earthquakes or otherwise.

“People don’t want to prepare until something happens,” he said. “Every time I go out and speak, I ask people are they ready for an emergency. I’m lucky if one or two say ‘yes.’

“I think (besides the recent fires) it’s because we don’t have a lot of constant disasters like they can have back east or the midwest, with things like tornadoes or hurricanes. But you need to be prepared, whether for a house fire or an earthquake. Either way you can be displaced, you can feel lost.

“The more you can do to mitigate it, the better you can respond and bounce back.”

If nothing else, Sanchez said, families should put an action plan in place on what to do in case of an earthquake or other disaster that could cause separation.

“People think all they need are emergency kits and water. They forget about the planning portion,” he said. “A plan should include knowing places where to meet, and how to evacuate and escape from home, so everyone knows how to get out and go to the meeting location and make sure everyone is safe. If people just scatter, you worry you can’t find anyone.

“The more you plan ahead, the more you know what to do — and that reduces your stress level. It’s important to sit down and meet with your family, and ask if they’re prepared for a disaster. That should trigger questions about what to do. A family should never have to ask how to evacuate during a disaster.”