Jittery Los Angeles drivers are facing months of gridlock

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THE SCALE of the devastation caused by the Los Angeles earthquake became clear last night as insurers totted up the cost of collapsed freeways, crumpled homes and scores of fires. They estimated a repairs at dollars 7bn (pounds 4.7bn) - seven times that of the city's riots nearly two years ago.

The death toll rose to 34 after a man's body was dragged from a three-storey block of rented apartments near the quake's San Fernando Valley epicentre. The building collapsed to its ground floor, crushing people in their beds. He was the sixteenth to die in the sandwiched block.

President Bill Clinton will fly to California today to visit the earthquake area, the White House said, without giving details. The President had said he wanted to have a 'first- hand view' of the region but did not want to get in the way of relief efforts.

Los Angeles spent a jittery day, interrupted by sharp aftershocks from the quake amid continuing chaos. Thousands of families set up camp in public parks, huddled together in cars or under makeshift polythene shelters, because they could not return to damaged homes. There were long queues for petrol, milk and drinking water. Tens of thousands of homes were without water or power. In all about 15,000 are homeless.

The most enduring effect of the tragedy will be on the mechanism which holds the sprawling industrialised metropolis together: the freeway system, which connects the different neighbourhoods of the huge Los Angeles basin and carries about 13 million people a day.

The smog-choked Pacific coast city, once known as 'autopia' because of its 700 miles of modern freeways, faces months of gridlock on its already overcrowded roads. The disaster has forced Los Angeles finally to rue its decision, taken in the 1950s under pressure from the US motor industry, to rip up its public trolley car system and become the motor car capital of the world.

The California Transportation Authority has estimated that it will take at least a year to repair some of the collapsed or damaged freeways. These included two main arteries running into the north of Los Angeles and the Santa Monica freeway, the nation's busiest freeway, which connects downtown LA with its western edge.

Curiously, however, the buckled and shattered roadways may bring long-term benefits, at last forcing the city to make more use of public transport and car-sharing programmes. The transport authorities yesterday doubled the number of Metrolink trains into Los Angeles from parts of the San Fernando Valley, hoping that would start weaning people from their vehicles.

The physical damage of the Los Angeles earthquake will ultimately be repaired. What is less clear is the economic and psychological impact. Although it was not the 'Big One' Californians have long expected, the quake has terrified much of the city and is likely to trigger a new wave of departures for other states.

In the past three years, the Golden State - once seen as the gold mine and playground of America - has suffered riots, earthquakes, wildfires, floods and a severe recession fuelled by post-Cold War defence cuts. Even Pete Wilson, California's Republican governor, has observed gloomily: 'You begin to wonder how much Angelenos are expected to take.'