Twenty Years Ago -- The "Big One" Of '89

[ Posted Thursday, October 15th, 2009 – 18:04 UTC ]

I can't accurately use the Beatles line "It was twenty years ago today..." because the anniversary of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake is actually this Saturday. I do not blog on the weekends, though, and Fridays have their own regular feature, so here we are, two days early. Hoping you'll forgive me for the premature anniversary, I would like to relate my own earthquake story. I've included some general quake info as a prelude (mostly for the benefit of people who have never felt an earthquake), so if you'd like, you can just skip to the second section, where I tell my personal story of 1989.


Shake, Rattle, and Roll

Living in California has its faults (cue rimshot from drummer). OK, I apologize for that cheap-joke opening, but it is a fact of life on the West Coast that the Earth gets up and boogies every so often. While some people maintain that California is "on another planet," the truth of the matter is that lots of us actually live on a different tectonic plate than the rest of the country. The dividing line between these two geologic plates is, of course, the most well-known fault line in the world (living in California, the fault has an excellent P.R. and media-relations operation, one assumes) -- the San Andreas Fault. It stretches the length of California, meandering from deserts to mountains to coastline and even out to sea. The two tectonic plates which meet at this fault line are heading in different directions (insert your own California joke here). This causes them to grind against each other occasionally.

Mostly, this isn't even noticed. There are thousands of earthquakes in California each and every year. The vast majority of these are too small to be felt, even if you're sitting on top of the epicenter. Nobody, save a few geologists and seismologists, pay them any mind. Roughly once a year (very roughly, there's no set schedule or anything) a quake big enough for you to actually feel comes along.

Now, this is when you can tell people who have lived for a while in California from people who never have, or are newcomers to the experience. Well, actually, you can tell right off the bat by the fact that Californians mostly use the correct "temblor" (instead of the scientifically-incorrect "trembler") when talking about a quake. Californians also know to ask two questions when they feel a quake, and to use two different measures for quakes. The questions are: "What size was the quake?" and "How far away was it?" Without knowing both of these answers, it is impossible to gauge an earthquake's true power -- even after you've just felt it. You could feel a gentle roll in the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, and it could be either (a) a 4.8 quake nearby, or (b) an 8.7 quake that just destroyed Los Angeles, 400 miles away. It would feel the same to you, so knowing how far away the epicenter was is crucial to knowing what the damages are likely to be.

Personally judging an earthquake is based on two factors as well. How violently the ground moves, and how long it lasts. The Richter number addresses the first -- people who have lived here long enough can guess pretty close to how big a quake was, just from personal experience. Most quakes below 5.0 can't even be felt (in the 4.0 - 5.0 range, you might feel it if you're very close to the epicenter, but it'll be pretty mild -- the windows may rattle a bit, but that's it). Remember, though, that the Richter scale is logarithmic. This means a 6.0 quake is ten times bigger than a 5.0 quake. And a 7.0 quake is one hundred times bigger than a 5.0.

Now, there is no hard-and-fast rule about what constitutes a "big" quake, to say nothing of the (always-capitalized) "Big One." Generally, it is measured in how much damage the quake leaves behind. But any quake above 6.0, and/or any quake that lasts longer than three or four seconds, is (in my book, at least) a big quake.

The largest earthquakes in American history happened (surprise!) in Alaska, and smack in the middle of America on the banks of the Mississippi River. The New Madrid, Missouri quake of 1812 is estimated today at roughly 8.0, and changed the course of the mighty Mississippi. The Anchorage earthquake of 1964 (the "Good Friday Quake") was the second-most-powerful earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph, at a whopping 9.2, and lasted for five whole minutes. This is an eternity in earthquake time. There are home movies of this quake which show a promontory of land with suburban houses on it sliding into the sea and disappearing beneath the waves. People died in California from tsunamis generated by this quake. The effects were felt world-wide. Fishing boats were sunk in Louisiana. Well water sloshed around in Africa. Aftershocks were felt locally for eighteen months. This quake, although few know about it today, is the true Big One in American earthquakes.

The best-known earthquake, however (see what I mean about California media relations?), was the 1906 San Francisco Quake. Estimates for the size of this quake are in the 7.7 to 8.2 range, and 3,000 people died as a result of it. The city was destroyed, but mostly by the fires which raged for days afterwards and not the quake itself. Water mains breaking during the earthquake contributed to the problem, which is why San Francisco now has a huge cistern of water buried under every intersection in town, just in case.

Most quakes you feel, though, are of the 4.0-to-6.0 variety, and last less than a second. The quake itself may technically last longer on a seismograph, but you basically just feel one big jolt. Picture a large garbage truck going by on the street outside your house, and that's about right. The ground rumbles and lurches a bit, but the effects are no greater than an 18-wheeler or a train passing by. If a mild quake is longer -- from one to perhaps three or four seconds -- then you get the feeling of being on a raft on a lake with gentle waves. You can actually feel the ground "rolling" in the same fashion as a bobbing raft does on water.

It's very disconcerting, to say the least. This is supposedly "solid" ground we're talking about.


Loma Prieta -- 5:04 P.M., September 17, 1989

Loma Prieta is a dinky little town. It's hard to even call it a "town" as there really isn't a Main Street or much of anything other than a school and a few buildings. It's one of those towns up in the Santa Cruz mountains where there is a cluster of houses loosely connected because they happen to be near one another. The town wasn't even the epicenter, and the quake was actually named for Loma Prieta Peak, which was close to where the quake was centered. The true epicenter was actually in the middle of nowhere, on state parkland in the Forest of Nisene Marks.

But, although technically it is called the Loma Prieta Quake, most refer to it just as the San Francisco Quake, or the "second" San Francisco Quake, or the "second Big One." This is because (a) San Francisco is a lot bigger and more well-known (see comments on media relations), and (b) because Bay Area sports fans caused the damn quake in the first place.

Because, you see (warning: this paragraph is not scientifically accurate), the reason we had a massive earthquake is much more obvious than highbrow discussions of slip faults and subduction zones. The reason we had this particular Big One was that baseball fans didn't know which team to root for. It is no accident (by this theory) that the quake happened right as Game Three of the World Series was about to get underway at Candlestick Park, between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics. Whenever either of these teams makes the World Series, everyone in the Bay Area roots for them, in the spirit of cross-bay sports fandom. But this year, both teams made it, and were playing each other. Meaning the cross-bay tension was too much for the poor Earth to bear.

Ahem. OK, getting back to what actually happened. At 5:04 P.M., the San Andreas fault decided it was time to scratch a restless itch in Santa Cruz County. Eighty miles north, San Francisco and Oakland were very badly shaken as a result. The quake lasted for seventeen seconds (take it from me, this is a long time for the earth to be moving beneath your feet), and while originally pegged at 7.1 was later revised downward to 6.9 or 7.0. But raw numbers don't really tell you what it was like.

At the time, I had been working in Berkeley, in the East Bay north of Oakland, and commuting to an apartment in southwestern San Francisco by way of the BART (rapid transit train/subway). It was a pretty good job, but for some reason that day I decided around 4:30 to go home early. Trusting your instincts sometimes pays off, I guess. I was on a BART train when the quake hit. We had just crossed under the San Francisco Bay, and were two stations in to the financial "downtown" part of San Francisco. My train was the last one which made it all the way through the Transbay Tube -- the people behind us had a long and scary walk, underneath the Bay's waters, to get to safety. Some people had to walk for miles through the Transbay Tube, in very feeble lighting. Thankfully, I avoided this fate.

As I said, trusting my instincts turned out to be extremely lucky. I never would have made it home that night if I hadn't left when I did. Because all routes across the Bay were down. The Bay Bridge had a section of roadway collapse, so officials shut down the other bridges as well. Power was out in the city itself, and most of San Francisco's buses run on electricity provided by wires strung over the streets. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

We were sitting in the train in the station, with the doors open, waiting for people to get on board, when the train started shaking. As always, it takes a moment or two to realize what is going on. I distinctly remember someone saying out loud "it's an earthquake," which not everyone on the train had realized yet. It felt like a group of rowdy football players were outside the train, rocking the entire car up and down on its tracks.

As I said, this was under the financial district, underground in a subway station, with 50-story buildings on top of us. So, once I realized that there was absolutely nothing I could do to save myself, I sat back and rode it out. If those buildings collapsed, we were all dead men, but there wasn't anything we could do about it at the time.

The buildings in San Francisco are built upon a foundation of solid rubber blocks. I'm not joking -- at the base of the building, between it and the ground, are huge "bumpers" which allow the buildings to sway back and forth in a quake, like a tree in the wind. The architects must have known what they were doing, because the buildings did not come down (I would not be here today if they had).

As I said, the quake lasted 17 seconds. Stare at a clock for this period, while imagining that you're on a train which is doing the Fandango underneath you, and you can appreciate how long this really is. We knew it was a big quake, simply because it lasted so long. We did not know, however, how truly big this quake was, yet.

The power, as I said, cut out immediately. The emergency battery lighting came on. We all sat in the train for a few minutes, half-expecting the power to come back on again, so we could continue on home. This did not happen. Power wasn't restored for days to some areas of the city, and the electric buses didn't run for almost three days straight.

We finally realized we weren't going anywhere, and started trekking up to street level -- walking up very long escalators that weren't moving. I began to understand how big the quake was when I emerged on Market Street. The Ferry Building, at the end of Market (on the shoreline) had a flagpole on top of it which was now pointed at a crazy angle. Bricks and other pieces of buildings littered the sidewalks. Broken glass was everywhere. Cars had been crushed by falling debris. The stoplights were out. And, to top it all off, it was getting dark, and I was still miles from home.

But you know what? Chaos did not reign. Quite the opposite, in fact. The shared experience of living through a major disaster is a unique one. It's not something I would wish on others, but it is absolutely incredible how we all return to our basic humanity in such situations. I was wandering around, looking for one of the few gasoline-powered buses (which by this point were so jam-packed they weren't even stopping to let anyone else on) to get home.

What I saw was astounding. Some homeless guy had a transistor radio, and businessmen wearing suits that could have fed a homeless family for a year were very politely standing around listening to the guy's radio. We began to hear that the Bay Bridge had collapsed (not true, just one section of the upper deck fell), that the Marina district was on fire (true), and that an elevated freeway in Oakland had collapsed, killing thousands (true enough, but thankfully -- due to the baseball game -- the commute traffic was unnaturally light, and only around 200 died).

But I needed to get home. While wandering around, I saw another astonishing thing. San Francisco is a "grid" city, with regular city blocks and intersections all over the place. As I said, the stoplights were out. So bums were having a ball directing traffic at virtually every intersection I saw. These weren't even dignified homeless guys, they were winos and South-of-Market street people that most of the drivers wouldn't have even glanced at on a normal day. But they had taken the initiative and were out there doing a (mostly) good job of directing traffic, and avoiding city-wide gridlock. The cops who drove by had plenty of other things to do than direct traffic, so they were handing out flares to the bums who were doing the job for them (as I said, it was getting dark), so they could continue.

But my real "how anarchy works sometimes" story was how I got home. I had just about given up finding a bus to get on (as I said, they were all packed). But as I was standing next to an intersection, I noticed that cars and pickups were pulling up to the bus stop area, and shouting out their destinations. Grateful people were piling in, to get a free ride home. I found a pickup heading generally in my direction, and climbed in the back with a dozen other people. We headed through the Mission District, and there were lots of young tough guys hanging out on the street, doing nothing much. But there was absolutely zero looting or other disturbances that night, because they were as shell-shocked as the rest of us, and just gaping at the aftermath like everyone else.

I got home finally. The phones were sort of working -- you couldn't get a dial tone, and you couldn't dial local calls, but long distance seemed to be working. My father was in town and staying at a hotel for some conference, and we had to get in touch though calling Mom on the East Coast, who relayed messages.

The rest of the world was freaking out, though. This was because the event had happened on live television. The sports announcers actually rose to the occasion, because for hours and hours, they were the only "news guys" on the scene, as ludicrous as that sounds. So they called the play-by-play of the quake's aftermath to the world ("that quake really gave 110 percent, wouldn't you say?"). Kidding aside, though, the blimp that was covering the baseball game went flying around the city, and got the shots that were put into tight rotation on the news (you will likely see these same three shots this Saturday): the Bay Bridge's broken section (and a driver that tragically drove into the gap and died), the collapsed freeway in Oakland, and the Marina District fires. The effect of this was to convince everyone that the city of San Francisco was in flames, and that everyone was probably dead in the entire area.

I really can't fault them too much, though. This was a major disaster, and the damage was enormous throughout the region. Santa Cruz was completely incommunicado for hours, due to a landslide on the freeway into town. Eventually helicopters got in to see the extent of the damage. Near the epicenter, the devastation was very bad, although San Francisco got most of the coverage.

The guys in charge of transportation did a Herculean job over the next few weeks, I should mention. The Bay Bridge was back in operation in one month -- a speed record that will likely never be beat for such a major repair job. Life returned, slowly, to normal for everyone in the area. Aftershocks were felt around Santa Cruz for weeks afterward -- I drove down there about three weeks later and felt a few myself.

But anyone who felt the '89 quake will certainly never forget it. There is no safe place in life -- other states deal with tornados, hurricanes, avalanches, blizzards, floods, and all manner of other natural disasters. We in California deal with earthquakes. And I sincerely hope that twenty years ago in October was the only Big One I feel in my entire life.


-- Chris Weigant


4 Comments on “Twenty Years Ago -- The "Big One" Of '89”

  1. [1] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    first football, now baseball, all in the same week. dare i ask what's on the mind of our esteemed moderator?

  2. [2] 
    BashiBazouk wrote:

    Ah yes. The Loma Prieta Quake. What a fun three weeks it was. I was on the Santa Cruz Mall finishing up a day of work, had the pre-game on to catch the first inning or so before going home. Then all hell broke loose. I was on the top of a very steep ladder like stair case which I pretty much slid down. Turned a corner and had a pile of flat but light boxes fall on me as I ran toward the exit door. Later I found that a full roll of butcher paper had fallen from where the ladder went to and must have narrowly missed me.

    By the time I got outside the quake was over. I was talking to some passer by about the quake when something I will never forget happened. A motorcyclist pulled up to one of the parking spaces in front of where I worked. He pulled off his helmet and with huge wild eyes just stepped back from his bike with a "holy crap" expression. Trying to ride a motorcycle during a 6.9 or so quake is a harrowing experience, according to him.

    I went back in and cleaned up a water cooler that had fallen over and broken in to many pieces (the pottery kind). Then grabbed my camera and wandered down the mall to check out and photograph the damage. I was lucky that I did. The mall was closed down and fenced off mere hours later for a solid three weeks. The Santa Cruz mall is a main street with wide sidewalks and lots of shops. Not the indoor kind you think about when one hears "mall". The damage on the mall looked bad but nothing compared to what it looked like later when all the structurally unsound buildings were leveled.

    Two years before, there had been a push to require everyone to retrofit their buildings to survive earthquakes. This was shot down by business owners and landlords alike as being too expensive. In retrospect: D'oh!

    I then went off in search of my girlfriend at the time who was on the other side of town. Being a dedicated cyclist in those days, getting across town was easy. I found her, made it to a house of a family member and ate and drank and talked in to the night by candle light as the power was off and would remain so for some time.

    As a early twenty something, I could not even get to the building I worked in with the mall being closed and fenced off. Being October and an indian summer too boot, I did what any self respecting twenty something would do, I partied, hung out with friends and family and seriously enjoyed the sudden lack of responsibility that only a disaster could bring.

    Good times.

  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    nypoet22 -

    I was wondering if anyone would notice I used the phrase "give 110 percent" two days in a row...

    heh heh.

    BashiBazouk -

    Aha! A fellow survivor!

    Yeah, the stories I heard from friends in Santa Cruz were pretty frightening. I was down there around the time President Bush (or was it Dan Quayle? I forget) visited the town, a few days after I think. Downtown was still fenced in, and they hadn't even begun cleaning it up. Pacific Garden Mall has never been the same, that's for sure. And wasn't route 17 closed for like a month as well? Didn't they repave the whole thing, because of all the cracks? I lived in SF at the time, but as I said, I had friends down there. Glad to hear you made it OK, too. Doesn't really seem like 20 years...


  4. [4] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    I remember seeing Al Michaels go wide-eyed and fall out of his chair. I remember the blimp shots. That summer, we'd had a 4.1 centered about halfway between Florence and Memphis. Just a brief moment of being shoved sideways, and it was over.

    When I lived in California, my cat would wake me up after every temblor, so I never had a chance to get used to them.

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