Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Memories of Loma Prieta

I actually wrote this in 1996, for the Cafe Utné forum.

I was in my classroom up at UC Santa Cruz when the earthquake struck. We knew it was a big one. My first thought was "I hope the epicenter is *here*." (That's always my first thought; if it's here, that means it's no worse anywhere else.) We all filed out. The building up the hill was undergoing seismic retrofitting, and it was fine, so I figured everything else would be OK too. Right?

It was big but I didn't think anything serious would happen. I went up to do some stuff at a different part of campus (there were some student government elections) -- but the power was mostly out and nothing was happening, so I went home.

Well, I tried to. The buses that went downtown (where my house was) weren't running for some reason. There was another bus that ran down to about a mile from my house that was running, so I took it instead. (The bus driver said her radio was out.) The road on the east side of campus gives a good view of the city and Monterey Bay, and you could see smoke from some buildings.

I got to Bay and Mission streets and walked the rest of the way to downtown Santa Cruz. It was getting to be twilight. As I walked I heard radios. Mostly they were playing "evergreen" tapes, stuff designed to be played when nobody knew what was going on. People were guessing on the Richter scale and where the epicenter was. As I walked I could see places where the sidewalk had buckled. Places I had been earlier where the ground was flat now made a step of six or eight inches.

I came around the corner where my house was (on Spruce Street between Pacific and Cedar if you know Santa Cruz at all, one block south of Laurel). My apartment was part of the first floor of an old Victorian house from 1893. It was a tall two-story house with an attic dormer that you could see from the end of the block. As I looked up at it from around the corner it looked tilted, like it was at a different angle than usual. I don't think it registered until I was actually in front of it. The house had fallen off its foundation, and the left half had fallen away from the right half of the house.

Pictures of it are available on

I must have stood there for a while talking to myself, wondering what I was going to do. A neighbor -- who I don't think I'd ever talked to -- offered me a place in her living room that night. I ended up going back to campus. Everybody on campus was told to stay out of their dorms and we ended up sleeping literally on the parking lot until about midnight when we were allowed to go into the dorms. That was the first I had heard of the Bay Bridge or the Marina District fires. I stayed in the hall of a friend's dorm that night.

The next day I moved my stuff out of the apartment. My parents managed to get down from San Jose and San Mateo to help me, braving the back roads. We moved everything out and into a storage space we rented, with the help of my friend Doug and a number of passing strangers. There were no major aftershocks that day, thank goodness, and we were all OK. Still, the building was red-tagged later and knocked down. Now there is a small apartment complex there.

I arranged with campus housing to get a place in a dorm lounge. I lived in three different rooms on campus the rest of the school year.

As I write this I keep thinking of other things. I worked in the college library, and I snuck in there to call my parents around 7 pm. I remember the completely empty shelves with books tossed on the floor. I remember looking in the house amazed as the fragility struck home, windows and walls once square turning to parallelograms.

I remember walking from my house to the bus station, with streets closed off and everything smashed. I remember weeks later coming down and looking at all the empty spaces where there had been buildings and businesses.

Three people died in Santa Cruz that day from falling buildings. Many more people lost their livelihoods. I lost almost nothing -- a few kitchen things, a cassette tape or two, and an old IBM clone which wouldn't boot up again after the quake. The house wasn't even mine. Despite the stress and the hardship I still feel very lucky.

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