The Loma Prieta Earthquake 25 Years Later

SFChronicle1989quake

The San Francisco Chronicle initially reported hundreds dead in the massive 1989 earthquake.

Twenty-five years ago today at 5pm PT, I was in a condominium in downtown Santa Cruz. Game 3 of the Giants-A’s “Bay Bridge” World Series game at Candlestick Park was about to start when the TV began acting like a basketball. A few minutes later, when the earth stopped shaking, we walked out to see some houses sitting at 45-degree angles from their foundations, some buildings completely collapsed, and every chimney in the area in rubble. (Our building was untouched, aside from every dish in the kitchen shattering on the floor. When the electricity eventually came on, we found that the TV even worked.)

Somehow the phones never got knocked out, so we were able to get tabs on many of our friends and help where we could. Pretty much every able-bodied person in the area had the same instinct, so as darkness fell, we arranged for as many people as possible to get the perishables out of their refrigerators and come down to use our grill. We had a delicious feast that night as the aftershocks — some of which were larger than most of the quakes the area had seen in recent memory — rocked the building.

SantaCruzEarthquake

Downtown Santa Cruz.

That was the last good food we would have for quite a while as we quickly relied on peanut butter, ramen, and other durables in the days before power was restored while fielding phone calls from friends and family from around the world (when they could get through the jammed lines). The downtown area — including the historic Cooper Building that had undergone a retrofit to withstand seismic activity just a few months earlier — was so devastated that most of the businesses that didn’t go under would move into giant “temporary” tents for the next three years or so.

Miraculously, the number of people killed in Santa Cruz could be counted on two hands; judging by the number of collapsed buildings one would have thought that hundreds had perished (as the Chronicle headline in this post feared). The entire Bay Area suffered sixty-three deaths (most in the collapsed I-880 Cypress Structure), but those of us near the epicenter were very, very fortunate.  I don’t know if subsequent plate shifts have since altered it, but there was a huge chasm in the woods not far from the UC campus for years afterwards.

Eventually the chimneys were restored, demolition of unsavable buildings took place, and a major rebuilding effort was evident by the time I moved away in 1992. When I visited Santa Cruz five years later, there were no gaping holes where houses and businesses stood, but the town looked much different than it had on October 16, 1989.

Loma Prieta came up at the Urban Historical Association meeting in Philadelphia last week. The Urban Historical Association meets every other year in October. The previous meeting was in New York City, and the out-of-town attendees scrambled to flee the city as Sandy approached landfall.

For the Philadelphia meeting, a roundtable discussion on Sandy and sustainability moderated by Ellen Stroud and featuring Rohit Aggarwala, Jaye Fox, and Andrew Needham discussed the lessons of such “natural disasters” (I use quotes echoing Ted Steinberg’s argument that much of the disastrous elements have to do with human-built structures and economic inequalities) for urban historians.

One lesson from the 1989 earthquake (and the 1994 Northridge earthquake) was a focus on planning to make cities “earthquake-safe” rather than “earthquake-proof” through modeling. This approach seeks to reduce risk while recognizing it is never eliminated; the 2011 Fukushima disaster is in part a lesson that natural events may be more powerful than what reasonable models project, and that the human-built world can vastly exacerbate the scale of disaster that results. Additionally, the major earthquake that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand that same year was not on one of the faults that worried area seismologists. Safety is not guaranteed; that lesson certainly resonates when “storms of the century” become more frequent on the eastern seaboard.

Twenty-five years after the Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed downtown Santa Cruz, I live in another metropolitan region at risk from disasters. When searching for our last home, I consulted information about which neighborhoods were more dangerous than others. I did not consult violent crime statistics, but rather NYC’s hurricane evacuation map revised in the wake of Sandy. Our home is not in an area presently rated as a potential evacuation zone, though I understand that the map may be revised in light of new information, and a powerful storm could overwhelm the existing model of risk. Although the world has changed substantially in the past quarter century, Loma Prieta’s lessons on risk never being eliminated resonate today.

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