Southern Californians working in Washington monitored news programs yesterday and tried -- often unsuccessfully -- to call home after learning that the region had suffered a severe earthquake.

From the Washington office of Gov. George Deukmejian on North Capitol Street to the Southern California Edison Co. office on 19th Street NW, people with California ties were in a state of alarm.

"When the story broke, everybody was running around," said Linda Carlton, secretary to the vice president for federal relations of the Pacific Telesis Group, the holding company for Pacific Bell, which has a 25-person office here. "It was kind of a mess. We couldn't get information for a long time."

Carlton had tried all day to reach her parents "because they live right outside Pasadena. I got a recording that all circuits are busy."

When they did get through, callers learned of corporate headquarters that had been evacuated, of families shaken but unharmed and of houses still standing.

"I got through once to my father," said Karen Spencer, director of Deukmejian's Washington office. Her family lives near the earthquake's epicenter between Whittier and Montebello. "He said they were fine, but their 55-year-old house had a little bit of cracking."

Margaret McCarthy, a local Deukmejian staff member, said she'd contacted her mother and a friend, who had been driving to work during the quake. "They thought they had flat tires," she reported.

McCarthy was supposed to catch a 1 p.m. flight home yesterday for a Los Angeles seminar, but it was canceled because of quake damage to the conference building.

At Southern California Edison Co., office manager Russ Worden said he'd reached his mother in Santa Cruz. "She slept right through it," he said.

During phone conversations with Southern California Gas Co.'s home office, D.C. office manager Dorothy Agard was twice told, "Here comes another {quake}, goodbye."

Rep. Esteban Torres (D-Calif.), whose district was hardest hit, was preparing to fly home last night to inspect the damage. Torres said he reached his home by telephone five minutes after the quake. "I could call in, but they couldn't call out," he said. "My wife said, 'Did you know we'd just been hit by a quake?' "

Torres then went to the House floor for a vote and to report what he knew about the quake.

Tim Ransdell, a lobbyist for the California Department of Education, was not too concerned, even though his parents live in Los Angeles.

"You know, after a while, you tend to get a little numb to it," he said. "They almost become fun. You forget they can kill you."