Friday, October 17, 2014

My 25th Anniversary Earthquake Story

It has been 25 years since the Loma Prieta earthquake, and time for everyone to re-tell their stories. Here's mine.

My wife Heidi and I were living on Second Street in Monterey, in the Oak Grove neighborhood between Lake El Estero and the Navy school. Our dwelling was the second story of a free standing apartment building. Below us was a three car garage, two slots of which belonged to the tenants of the duplex at the rear of the property.

Heidi had just sat down
to watch the World Series. I was in the bathroom washing my hands when I felt a slight rattle. I didn't think anything of it because our apartment had been rattling intermittently for a few days. An old school building across the street had been recently demolished to make way for a new low-income senior housing complex. A parade of dump trucks and earth moving equipment had been working to level the ground for the new construction. We had gotten so used to the light shaking that we weren't too conscious of it anymore, and in effect I missed the first part of the earthquake.

But when I walked from the bathroom to the living room the house suddenly felt and sounded like it was being repeatedly hit by a truck. BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!..... I pointed across the street and asked Heidi "Is that them???" She jumped out of her chair and shouted "NO!" She knew what I did not yet, that the TV had gone dead and a large potted plant was dancing around behind me.

Now I realized this was an earthquake. My first thought was "Is this the BIG ONE?" That was immediately followed by the realization that the house wasn't shaking so badly that we couldn't get out, but we might not be able to if it got any worse. I reached for the front door, turned the knob, and the door was stuck, just for a second, then it opened. After that we did everything wrong. We ran down the exterior stairs under a large glass window, out to the sidewalk, and stood underneath power lines.

When we reached the sidewalk the shaking stopped. We saw our neighbor, Mark, who lived across the street next to the vacant lot, running out of his apartment with his hands partly raised and a puzzled look on his face. We exchanged a few words and he went back inside. Before that moment we didn't know Mark very well, but from then on we became good friends.

As we stood on the street we felt the ground rising and falling below our feet as we looked up and saw our living room window glass flexing. Mark came back out and said he had just called his mother in Auburn to tell her we'd just had a significant earthquake. As he spoke to her she felt the shaking reach her home.

A small group of neighbors gathered on the street, and a dump truck driver asked if he could use our phone to check on his wife. "She hates earthquakes" he said. We were happy to oblige. He said he didn't feel anything because he was in his truck. He learned about it from the other construction workers.

Back inside we had no power for the next 26 hours. We turned on a portable radio and it was awhile before we found a local station on the air. KOCN was the first, and they were reporting that they were broadcasting from their transmitter rather than their studio. It was our only source of local information. At one point they mentioned something about contaminated water supplies (not here I later figured out) so I filled a couple of containers with clean tap water just in case bad water came down the line.

We also listened to KGO to find out what was happening in the San Francisco Bay Area and it sounded pretty grim.

Before it got dark I took my bicycle out for a brief time to see if there was any damage around town. I rode down to Fisherman's Wharf and the north end of downtown. Everything looked OK, but in the twilight the only electrical lights I could see were in the north stairwell of what was then the Sheraton (now the Marriott) Hotel, probably powered by an emergency generator.

I went home and before long it was dark and the candles came out. There were no lights as far as we could see. It felt lonely. We spent the evening playing board games, listening to the radio, and riding the frequent aftershocks. Most of our candles were of the low profile variety, but on our coffee table we had two tall tapers to illuminate our playing surface. Afraid they might topple in an aftershock, we blew them out whenever the house shook, then re-lit them when it stopped.

After several attempts I was able to call my mother in Oregon. I told her we were OK, but that "we had a wild ride." She said she heard about a major earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area, then she grew more and more concerned about us when she learned the epicenter was much much farther south than she first believed. In t he course of our conversation she assumed we knew more than she did, but when I told her we had no power she realized we could not see the news footage of the damage in the bay area, so she described it to me. 

We resumed the games, and we sensed strange, vague vibrations. They were so faint we couldn't tell if we were hearing them or feeling them, or just imagining them. We ruled out the latter after a time because we both agreed on when they started and stopped.

Bedtime was especially eerie. WIth no light inside or out, our bedroom was too dark to feel safe sleeping. I don't think I slept much.

Morning felt better. We still didn't have power but there was light, and the milk was still cold enough to serve on cereal. A boy scout came to the door asking for donations of food to deliver to folks in Watsonville, which was hit much harder than we were. We provided a few cans and he thanked us.

That afternoon I chatted with one of our back-door neighbors and I asked him where he was during the quake. "I didn't feel it because I was driving." he said, then he had the best line of the day: "But I knew something was wrong because the radio went dead and a dumpster was walking across the street!"

As evening approached Heidi had a bit of a problem. She was to play the organ for a Wednesday evening church service. That would be difficult with no electricity. But she had a small battery powered keyboard, little more than a toy, really, but it would do in a pinch. It was for a small congregation, so it didn't need to be very loud. We packed it up and took it with us. We got it set up in the church and then the lights came on. Normal life was back.

When we returned home we turned on the TV and saw the news coverage from San Francisco. For the first time we saw the damage to the Bay Bridge, and the horrific scene in the east bay where crews were still rescuing people from the collapsed double-decker freeway. We saw the damaged church in Watsonville, and the broken buildings in downtown Santa Cruz. We got off easy.

Mild aftershocks continued for months. Heidi and I had very different reactions to them. Each one had her running to stand in the safety of a doorway. I had become so accustomed to them, and they were fairly weak in comparison to the main event, that they didn't bother me at all. I kind of enjoyed them. I think it took a year or more before they stopped completely.

A major event puts little ones into perspective. For a long time small earthquakes had me saying "so what?" Or as KGO talk show host Jim Eason put it "We don't even count anything smaller than a 4 anymore." But as time has passed, small earthquakes have had a tendency to get me nervous again. Because the Loma Prieta earthquake started out with mild rattling, every small shaker now makes me worry that it's going to get bigger. Funny how that works.

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