Earthquake takes gloss off Golden State: Many Los Angeles residents are rethinking their decision to live in California

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The Independent Online
TASHA ANDERSON has made up her mind. The appeal of the City of Angels - its sunshine, spaciousness and freedom - was already tarnished by fires, riots and recession. But the thought of another earthquake has tipped the balance.

She has decided to quit her job as a store manageress, pack up her belongings and head for the east coast, adding another name to the growing number of Americans who are quitting the Golden State to build new lives elsewhere. 'The earthquake has given me a good reason to get out,' she said, 'It was so scary, so terrifying.'

Mrs Anderson, 21, is no exception. Other white, middle-class diners at a trendy restaurant at a shopping mall in Encino yesterday echoed the same sentiments. 'I have reached a point where I have to very carefully weigh up economic advantages of being here against the disadvantages of the place,' said James Horan, an actor, 'I like to have control over what's going to happen to me. And you can't control an earthquake.'

But most of the diners, as their Jeeps and Porsches parked outside beauty salons and boutiques testified, have a choice. The better-off in Los Angeles were less badly hit by the earthquake that rumbled across southern California early on Monday, killing 43 people, crippling the LA freeway system and causing damaged estimated between dollars 15bn ( pounds 10bn) and dollars 30bn. They can stay or they can leave.

The same cannot be said for the hundreds of Hispanic manual workers and their families who spent another chilly night camping in a public park in Reseda, huddling around wood fires and sleeping beneath plastic sheeting or crammed into tents. Northridge, the epicentre of the earthquake, in north Los Angeles, has many low- income, uninsured Mexicans, Salvadoreans and other Latin Americans. It has more cheap, poorly built rented apartments. The combination means the thousands of occupants of the 'tent cities' in 70 parks around Los Angeles are the worst victims of this disaster.

Carmen Bargas, 35, a Mexican who works in a fast-food store, slept in his Ford Bronco with five others, including two babies. Like many of the estimated 20,000 now living out of doors, he is waiting for an inspector to decide whether his apartment, badly cracked and buckled by the earthquake, is habitable. He does not know how long he will have to sleep rough. But he knows he cannot leave California. The money - meagre though it is - keeps him there.

Sophia Bronakowska, a Polish immigrant, is in a similar dilemma. She and her husband live in a tent while their son and his wife sleep in their car. They, too, are awaiting news of their home. As they rely on her son's income from a discount store, staying in Los Angeles is less a matter of choice than compulsion.

To make matters worse, the tribulations of the 'campers' are likely to worsen this weekend, when rainstorms are forecast across the region. But, even in the sunshine, it is bad enough. Yesterday morning, southern Californians were jolted from their beds by another nasty aftershock, measuring 4.4 on the Richter scale, to face the beginning of 'the commute from hell' in a city whose transport system has been disrupted by freeway collapses, broken bridges and buckled roads. There were huge queues of traffic - a foretaste of months of likely delays while the freeway system is repaired.

The city's 8 million motorists have have had to resort to 'surface roads' instead of freeways, a prospect which fills some with dismay, partly for fear of being forced through gang-ridden neighbourhoods. Motorists' dependency on the freeway network was evident in warnings broadcast by local radio. It advised people to 'buy maps, not to drive at 55mph (the freeway speed limit), and to stop at traffic lights.'

Yesterday, as President Bill Clinton visited Los Angeles, the crisis- weary city was combating another problem - crooked merchants demanding up to dollars 5 for a gallon of water and dollars 10 for batteries.