Twenty-five years ago today, I sat in my loft unit in graduate student housing at Stanford, waiting for the third game of the Bay Bridge Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland As to start, when the entire house began to shake. Thus begun one of the scariest thirty seconds of my life.
What was even worse than the Loma Prieta earthquake (for me at least, I heard some horror stories from classmates who were at the Law School when the earthquake hit) was the media in the hour or two afterward. The Bay Bridge had collapsed. There were houses down and fires all over San Francisco. Part of I-880 was flattened. Overpasses all over the area were crumbling.
Yes, part of the upper structure of the Bay Bridge had collapsed. Yes, there were houses down and fire in the Marina district in S.F. And the Cypress structure on 880 — oh, my God. The original estimates of the dead were about 300 — in the end only 63 poor souls lost their lives. This may have been because of the ball game, which because it featured the two local teams meant a large viewership. Traffic was lighter than usual, because people were home or in bars waiting for the game, the same as I was. (Oddly, there was (in the immediate aftermath, at least) few reports from Watsonville and Santa Cruz, both which had buildings down and people dead. It may be because they were farther away from the media in S.F.)
I got a call from the Rocket Scientist’s mother on the East Coast, who had seen similar reports and was only slightly less frantic than I was. I could not get through to RS. All I could think of was, his office building is on reclaimed land. (Wikipedia “liquefaction” if you do not know why I was so scared.) When he finally walked in an hour and a half later, my first words were, sadly, not “Thank God you’re safe” but “We are moving the hell out of this fucking state.” (I did then say “Thank God you’re home safe.”)
We assessed the damage: we had lost a few glasses, but most of our cabinets were aligned with the movement of the earth and stayed mostly closed. (I would like to say that we had earthquake-proofed our unit, but I’d be lying.) The psychic damage, especially for me, ran deep.
I hear people here say that earthquakes are better than hurricanes. I grew up in hurricane country, and I strongly disagree. It is empirically irrational, I know, but earthquakes hit me in a visceral way that hurricanes and other storms do not. You can see a hurricane coming: earthquakes just… happen. (When the (mild) 6.0 quake hit this summer, I spent two days in a cold sweat. The earth is NOT supposed to move like that. My husband, with his Master’s in Geology, would disagree, of course.)
We’re still here a quarter of a century later. All of our kids have lived with the possibility of “The Big One” all of their lives. When he went back East to go to college, The Not-So-Little-Drummer boy said he couldn’t understand how people could have bookshelves above their bed. Of course, back there, an earthquake is not likely to come along and collapse the shelf on top of you while you sleep.
I like the state better, now, and it is home in some sense, for the rest of my family at least. But I hate thinking about how the earth can, without warning, turn your life upside down.