Monday, October 19, 2009

Earthquake Victim of 1989 Loma Prieta Quake Remembers

To Lucy, a survivor of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, the most surreal part was in the aftermath.

She lived, and still does, in the Marina - pictured above, though she didn't want to be pictured - in the most damaged part of San Francisco. It was the haste with which people vacated their homes in the days following the 6.9 quake that spooked her.

'People were throwing things out of the windows....I saw people actually throwing their clothes into a truck. It was freaky, kind of scary!' she said.

I spoke to her as the city's Big Rumble commemoration of the quake's 20th anniversary was coming to an end - see previous blogs. It took just 16 seconds for the quake to travel from near the Loma Prieta Mountain in the Santa Cruz mountains to the Presidio, which is adjacent to the Marina.

It struck at a few minutes past 5 pm on October 17, at 5:04:37 pm precisely, and when the shaking around the city had ended, Lucy, who worked as a sales rep for a company, suddenly found herself having to walk the few miles home.

When she arrived at her apartment, in the middle of a three-storied building on Beach
Road, her house was still standing. The door to her apartment was buckled and inside there was

'I lost all my dishes and lamps, anything ceramic,' she said.

On the ground floor, the wastewater line had cracked, splitting the floor in half. As it was repaired, workers packed hay around the new pipe to allow it to move in the next quake.

The Marina was a disaster area, and the next day she went around and 'took photos all day,' though she is not sure where that treasure trove of historical pics are. She thinks they are in storage somewhere.

Amazingly, despite the damage all around, her house was green tagged by building inspectors as 'ok to enter and occupy.' FEMA came to inspect the damage in her apartment and, Lucy remembered with a smile, the inspectors had to break down the door because they couldn't squeeze through. The effort was worth it, though, because they gave her $1,500 in total for her losses, except for her TV which was not covered.

However, her fellow tenants were far from reassured, either by the green tagging or the end of the quake. They bolted to families nearby and left Lucy as sole occupier. Lucy, who had moved from LA in 1986, didn't have anywhere else to go. Surveying the empty property, her mind filled with thoughts of 'who can I talk to?' and 'where can I go?'

She was rescued by an older couple who were neighbours. They befriended her and turned into lifelong friends. Today Lucy still visits the husband, now a widower, who has just celebrated his 90th birthday.

Another girl, too, turned to the same neighbours for help. She wanted permission to climb over their back fence so that she could sneak into the back of her house, which had been red tagged as unsafe to enter, to retrieve her jewellery and artwork. That, too, was the start of another friendship and she continues to keep in touch with Lucy and the husband, even though she no longer lives in California.

'It's funny how one thing brings people together and you stay together,' she said.

Her property lost electricity, as did thousands of others, and was one of the last to have power restored. She recalls power coming back just before Thanksgiving. In the interim, the city supplied mobile shower units in a nearby street.

'I put on my bathrobe and slippers and just walked out there! Everybody did it!' she said.

The disaster wasn't without other humorous moments either. One afternoon she slipped out from work early to go home, only to be televised by a CNN crew filming in the area.

'Everybody was laughing at me,' she said. 'The company were really good. They said, "don't you have to go and see your customers in Seattle!"' She did!

The Red Cross pitched in with accommodation for displaced residents. Funded by them, Lucy stayed two nights in a local hostel. She remembered the hostel charging $35 instead of the regular $80, and was struck by the fact that some fellow guests were millionaires who took advantage of Red Cross funding.

Meals and beds were provided, too, by The Marina Middle School. 'It was a crazy time!' she said.

Growing up in LA and accustomed to ground tremblings, Lucy didn't have the same measure of panic as many of those around her. She didn't flee the Marina, and today continues to live there. But the quake did bring about some changes in lifestyle.

In the immediate aftermath, she bought only plastic mugs and plates, and in the longterm, earthquake preparedness has became a part of her life. She never leaves her apartment on foot without wearing sensible shoes in case she has to walk back again, and in her car is a bag packed with warm clothes and good footwear.

But the great paradox is that the LA earthquake-experienced girl now trembles in her sensible shoes far more than she did in 1989.

'I don't think people get it,' she said. 'I'm more scared now than I was in 1989 because we haven't had anything to speak of. I think the pressure's building up. Then you hear there's this big one in Samoa, and in Indonesia,' she trailed off.

An ominous warning is posted on The Big Rumble website:

'......the Loma Prieta — which the U.S. Geological Survey has indicated was merely 6% as intense as the 1906 earthquake — will pale in comparison to the far more serious quake that will inevitably strike in the future.

'The Hayward Fault has not had a major earthquake since 1868, before the East Bay was densely populated, and both the Hayward and the San Andreas are due for major quakes.'

Though in part Lucy dismisses the experts' views. 'Back then - 1989 - they said we could have a major earthquake in 30 years, it's now been 20,' she said. And then this week she heard on MSNBC another expert reiterating the current consensus that there will be a major quake in the next 30 years from now.

'I think these people don't know what they're talking about,' she said, fearing that the next big one is on its way much sooner than expected.

'It's been too quiet!' she said.
  • Tracking down all retrofit projects carried out in the city since 1989 would be a 'Herculean effort', say The Big Rumble, so that a complete catalogue has proven elusive. But there is still much info available on a community mapping project conceived by structural engineer David Bonowitz and sponsored by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) in Oakland

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