Personal Earthquake Experience: 5:04pm, October 17, 1989 & 4:53pm, January 12, 2010

On the phone to a friend in New York from the kitchen of what was my idyllic, Northern California, hilltop farmhouse I said, “I better go. I think I feel an earthquake”. Before I could walk the 3 steps to hang up the phone I was knocked to the floor. The refrigerator came bouncing across the floor towards me. When I tried to look out the window I saw floor, then ceiling, and then floor. The entire contents of the kitchen cabinets rained down in a roar. It felt like I was on a card table with a baseball bat for its only leg getting thrusting every which way 2 feet per second.

In 30 seconds it was over. I crawled outside. There was complete silence. No power, phone, radio, or TV. I was alone a few miles up a country road from the village of Soquel. I had no idea whether I was on top of the earthquake (and had felt the worst of it) or if the epicenter was in San Francisco. All I wanted to know was if a population center had been hit. I was thinking thousands would be dead if it was centered near San Francisco – 80 miles away.  The Emergency Broadcast System was up shortly; I accessed it from my car radio.  

This was the earthquake that happened during the World Series game. There were fires in the San Francisco Marina District, a highway near Oakland collapsed, and a stretch of the Bay Bridge deck collapsed. 63 dead, 7.1 magnitudes centered 3 miles away from me, 10 miles below me, and 85 miles from San Francisco. They called it the Loma Prieta Quake.

I helped a neighbor down the road trapped in her house. The tops of my redwood trees had snapped off from the earth’s whipping action. The motorcycles in my garage were in a heap. Of all the things going on in the first following hours (like ash raining on the house from the forest fire approaching because a high voltage tower had tipped over), hearing that they were evacuating the low-lying beach houses in Capitola really floored me. The rumor was that the tide had gone out rapidly after the quake; that meant that it was probably going to come way in very quickly as a tsunami. To be hit by earthquake and then have the ocean come swallow you up is unfathomable. That tsunami never did come. When I could finally get to a functioning phone, my first call was to the guy in New York who heard the first 10 seconds of the quake before the phone went dead.

My elevation was 6 feet higher after it. We slept outside for 10 days because of madness-inducing aftershocks. The rape rate in Santa Cruz County tripled through next year. Emergency responders got a lot more respect. People didn’t cheer at concerts for a year in Santa Cruz. I still don’t like the idea of taking the BART train under SF bay. When a big truck passing shakes a building; I still start to run for the door.

The psychic shock caused by the destruction and death in Haiti must be many magnitudes larger – even if the Richter magnitude was perhaps half the size of my quake. (The Richter Scale is logarithmic. A 9.0 earthquake is about a 500 times larger than a 7.1.) San Francisco was about the same distance from the epicenter as was Port-au-Prince from last week’s quake. Shock waves get bigger (but less sharp) as they travel from an epicenter just as waves caused by a pebble dropped in a pool do. Different types of similarly-sized quakes cause more destructions to buildings than others. (Some fault movement is vertical and some horizontal.)  Whether a building or city is built on rock or sand makes a big difference. The sandy sub-surface Downtown Santa Cruz and the Marina District are built on made those areas more vulnerable than others.

Given how comparatively similar the two quakes, the population totals, and distances from the epicenters were the contrast in deaths is huge: 63 deaths to possibly 200,000 deaths. Likely, the biggest differentiator in the number of people killed and buildings destroyed in Haiti contrasted to San Francisco was building standards. I’m thinking re-bar in cement walls, bolts strapping wood-frame houses to foundations, and steel cross-beams retrofitted into old brick building probably made for most of that difference in death rates.

If the Haitians re-build corrugated tin and cement shacks, we haven’t learned anything. That is why I think they should depopulate Port-au-Prince. Bus and boat as many people as possible to villages ASAP. Then, start over with a completely new infrastructure: new sewer plants, gas lines, electricity grid, etc. It was US-based development organizations’ policies that encouraged Haiti’s urbanization; our major role in cleaning it up makes sense to me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *