On Tuesday evening, October 16, 2012 while working as a custodian on the top floor of the Newfound Memorial Middle School in Bristol, New Hampshire, something got my attention and caused me to stop what I was doing and look around, at nothing in particular, really just kind of a, “What the…?” moment. A sudden vibration ran through the building, which quickly started shaking and rattling. This lasted only a few seconds but that was enough for me to know I was experiencing an earthquake. When I got home from work, I found out the epicenter of the quake was in Maine and it registered a four on the Richter scale.
What probably caused me to drop what I was doing and look around may have been the ‘P-waves’ which are the fastest moving form of seismic wave from an earthquake and are normally the first waves to be picked up by seismograph stations. I must have some sensitivity to them after living in California for twenty-five years. Back on the West Coast, there were many occasions where I stopped whatever I was doing to look around and think, “Huh…?” just a split second before the shaking would start.
As I resumed my work, it occurred to me that the next day would be October 17th, the twenty-third anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake which stopped the World Series in 1989.
At that time I worked the graveyard shift, from five PM until five AM, four nights a week, driving a Yellow Cab in Santa Cruz, California. Shelly, my live-in girlfriend, was the graveyard shift waitress at a twenty-four hour restaurant called ‘Tiny’s’, just up the street from where we lived near Capitola Village, so the two of us got home in the morning and went to bed when most folks were getting up to start their day.
Though I had grown up in a suburb of Boston and was a Red Sox fan by birth, I became a fan of the San Francisco Giants within my first year on the central coast and the Summer of 1989 had been a great season as the San Francisco Giants were now in the World Series against the Oakland As from across the bay.
On the afternoon of October 17, 1989, I woke up and lay in bed, thinking to myself, “It’s Tuesday and I have three nights off. The Giants game should be starting in a few minutes and I should get my butt out of this bed and put on a pot of coffee.”
My girlfriend, Shelly, was still sleeping but was being restless and making sounds which made me to think she might be having a bad dream. I put my arm around her and was trying to wake her up, when suddenly the whole house shook with a single jolt, along with a noise that sounded as though a truck had hit the outside wall. As the first vibrations began shaking the house, I said, “Wow, it’s an earthquake!” But then the shaking quickly intensified, alarmingly, and I yelled out, “Not a regular earthquake!”
Only later did I think about the absurdity of that statement and wonder what might be considered to be a ‘regular’ earthquake as opposed to the one we were having.
Realizing that this was something serious, I jumped out of bed and in what must have been one of those moments you sometimes hear about, in which people in a panic situation don’t know their own strength, I pulled Shelly up off of the bed with me and got us both, stark naked, into the bedroom doorway.
In the small house that I had been renting for a few years, the bedroom door opened into the kitchen. To the left of it was a closet door and to the right was the door between the kitchen and living room. At a right angle to the bedroom door was a doorway from the kitchen into the back hall and the bathroom was off of the hallway. So with the number of doorframes clustered in the center of the house, I had previously considered that this would be a structurally strong location within the house, in the event of just the sort of earthquake we were now experiencing.
Bracing myself in the doorway with my back against one side of the doorframe and my right hand against the opposite side of the frame, I had my left arm around Shelly holding her tightly against me as the shaking, rocking and rolling intensified. From the other rooms there came the sounds of objects falling and crashing as a series of hard jolts struck, first in one direction and then another and all the while, Shelly was crying out saying, “No, No, NO”!
At one point it appeared as though the kitchen and bedroom were moving in the opposite directions at the same time until finally the shaking and crashing subsided. Shelly would later tell me that she had no recollection of anything up to the point when the shaking stopped and I was holding her in the doorway.
As soon as the house had stopped moving, I grabbed our bathrobes and some clothes, saying, “C’mon, let’s get out of here!” but Shelly cried out, “The babies!”
In the bedroom closet there were two newborn litters of kittens and Shelly was scooping kittens and mother cats into cat carriers as I put a robe over her and we took the cats and headed for the front door. Once outside we were able put some clothes on and take stock of what had just occurred. We both knew we did not have too many hours of daylight left and we were going to have to make some preparations for the night. The power was out. We had just woken up and had no time for coffee or breakfast. Knowing that we would be needing food and bedding we made repeated trips into the house to get blankets, pillows and sheets and set up a bed in the back of her pick-up truck, which had a camper shell on it. Like many people, following the quake, we would be camping out in the yard for the next few nights. Every time we went into the house, another aftershock would start rattling the place and we would go running out the front door but eventually we had what we needed outside.
I made one trip into the house looking for my pet rat, ‘Rat III’. His ten-gallon tank had fallen off of the bookshelves, along with a lot of books, and by some miracle, had not broken. It seemed almost appropriate; somehow, that my thick copy of Liddell Hart’s ‘History Of The Second World War’ had landed across two other books forming a small shelter space beneath it and that is where ‘Rat III’ was found hiding. He was a bit shaken up but doing ok.
Ever since the ‘Flood of 1982’ I had made a habit of always picking up some extra canned food when I’d go grocery shopping and rotating the canned stock in my kitchen cabinets. Also, though I fed my pets dry food as a main diet, I would buy some canned pet food to give them an occasional treat as well as to maintain a reserve supply in the house. Shelly and I were both surprised at the amount of food we took out of the kitchen cabinets. Fortunately, I had a small single-burner cooker that screwed onto a butane tank. I had bought this unit a few years before for traveling on my motorcycle and I can tell you that they are very handy to have when an emergency like this hits. It not only gave us something to cook on but to make coffee with as well.
I was living in Soquel Village during the flood of ’82 and following that event I had assembled an emergency kit consisting of some boxes of candles, several books of matches, several packages of different sized batteries for my various flashlights and radios, a sealed, unopened jar of instant coffee, an envelope with $25.00 in one dollar bills, etc. When I moved from Soquel Village to Live Oak, the box got stuck in the garage along with a bunch of other boxes and forgotten about.
A few weeks before the Loma Prieta earthquake I cleaned out my garage and was surprised when I opened that box and found all those packs of batteries and candles and things. After seven years, the jar of instant coffee had solidified, even though it had never been opened. Everything else looked ok, so I set the box on a shelf, intending to do something with it later.
Considering I worked at night and had a number of flashlights, we found that all of our flashlights had weak batteries and put out a dim light. We also knew that at this time, there would be a rush on stores for food, water, batteries and other supplies that most people never think about until an emergency occurs. Without power, stores would only be admitting a few people at a time and not accepting any credit cards or checks. It would be cash only in small bills. For now, as the daylight faded, we were ok on our immediate needs except for those weak flashlights.
Remembering the old box of emergency supplies that was in
the garage, I retrieved the batteries from it, installed them in the flashlights and found they worked great! So quite by accident, I learned that if you store a bunch of batteries in a dry place, they would still be good seven years later. Their overall life may not be as long as fresh ‘off-the-shelf’ batteries but they will function well enough for the first few days following an emergency like this, when you need them the most.
As we got prepared for the evening, I brought some of my radios out of the house. I had a shortwave receiver that would operate from batteries and a small five-inch, black and white TV set that would run off of batteries or 12 Volt power from the truck and also a CB radio that ran off the truck. The CB radio is still a viable means of finding out what is going on in a local area, often just by listening to it. The shortwave receiver allows one to search and monitor some of the amateur radio bands. The Ham Radio Operators are almost always the first line of active communications when a disaster strikes. I also had a handheld scanner that was programmed with the more important county frequencies for the police, fire and other emergency services.
Shortly after getting some of this equipment set up, my friend Sam came by to see how we were doing. Sam took one look and said, “Well, I knew this would be communications central!” While he was there we turned on the five-inch TV and soon saw our first images of the collapsed span of the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland.
Shelly and I spent a couple of nights camping in the front yard as we got the inside of the house cleaned up and organized. Considering that we lived in an unincorporated area of Santa Cruz known as ‘Live Oak’, and was only about five miles from the epicenter of the quake, the little house weathered the shaking quite well and although numerous aftershocks continued to rattle the area for awhile, the only damage seemed to be a few cracks in the drywall.
Up until the Loma Prieta event, my attitude about earthquakes was that they were natural phenomena, which we cannot do anything about. Most people never experience one so just enjoy the free ride. I knew many people who felt the same way, but the Loma Prieta quake put fear into a lot of folks. For a couple of years, following the quake, if a truck hit a bump in the road near my house, I would be out of bed and heading for the door.
A few months after the earthquake, Shelly and I split up and she moved out, taking her family of cats with her, except for a pair of males from one of the litters that had been born just before the quake. I named them ‘Spot’ and ‘Streak’ and I also kept their father who was a large cat we had picked up as a stray and named ‘Smudge’.
Smudge eventually disappeared and it was a couple of years before I learned he had moved into a machine shop down the street, and later went with the owner when he moved his business to Nevada.
I kept ‘Spot’ and ‘Streak’ until around my fortieth birthday when I began experiencing allergy problems and, regretfully, had to put my cats up for adoption. I took the two of them to the Animal Shelter and had written a short essay about them called, ‘Loma Prieta Cats’ which I gave to the folks at the shelter and I guess it proved effective, because a lady who worked at the shelter called me with a few questions about them saying she wanted to adopt them both.
After twenty-five years of living in Santa Cruz County, I left the West Coast in late 2005 and returned to the East Coast, eventually settling in a small town called Grafton, in the Upper Valley region of New Hampshire.
Grafton’s population hovers around 1300 people and has more miles of dirt road than paved. There is no TV cable in this town and no cell phone service and our elected Chief of Police is the whole police force. We do have a street light, about a mile up the road from my house, near the Grafton Country Store. Sometimes I walk up to the store in the evening, to get a cup of coffee and watch the light come on.
On October 17, 2009 it occurred to me that it was the twentieth anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake. My first thought being, “I can’t believe it’s been twenty years! Where did the time go?”
Later that evening I walked up to the store. The girls behind the counter said, “Hi Michael. What’s new?” and I replied that in a few moments, it would be exactly twenty years ago, to the minute, on the West Coast, when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck. They had no idea of what I was talking about until I mentioned the earthquake that stopped the World Series in 1989, and then they recalled the event. But most amazingly, there was a local guy standing there in the store who said he was in Oakland when it hit and I asked him, somewhat stunned, “You were there?” He told us how he saw the start of the collapse of the Cypress Freeway in Oakland and I could not help but wonder, what were the odds that two guys who were in that earthquake would both end up living here in Grafton, New Hampshire, almost three thousand miles from Santa Cruz, and meet on the evening of the earthquake’s twentieth anniversary? I don’t think you could have gotten odds on that one in Vegas.
By Michael G. Shanks
Perhaps Santa Cruz folks should be glad that I left…
The day I arrived in Santa Cruz, in January of 1980, my dog and I had hitch-hiked across the country and we got a ride down Highway 1, from Oakland, California, by a little old lady who dropped us off in Santa Cruz. On the way, she asked if I had felt the earthquake earlier in the day and I said I had not. Upon arriving in Santa Cruz, the talk around town was how that morning’s earthquake had caused the Natural Bridges, a local landmark, to collapse. Over the years, because this event occurred on the day I arrived in town, I often joked that it was my fault and folks could blame me for it.
In 1982, we had the devastating flood that made Santa Cruz County a federal disaster area and then in 1989 came the Loma Prieta Earthquake and finally, there was the great storm of 1996 in which the levies in Watsonville gave way and once again, Santa Cruz County was declared a disaster area for the third time in the sixteen years since my arrival. Perhaps, now that I have left Santa Cruz, things will settle down.
While writing this essay about my experiences during the Loma Prieta earthquake, I had completely forgot about one of my all-time, favorite earthquake stories, which, ironically, involves the same girlfriend, Shelly, that I mention in the original essay.
I am sure that everyone has had an occasional experience of some sort in which hours later or the next day, they think of some clever quip or response to whatever happened and wonder why they couldn’t think of something so good to say at the critical moment. Well for once in my life, I had the perfect response at the very moment when it counted the most!
When Shelly and I started dating, the first time she stayed over night at my house, we ended up in the bedroom for most of the evening, doing what two adults do when they are attracted to one another. The following morning, upon waking up next to her, we continued where we had left off before falling asleep. As we were in the middle of the, ‘throes of passion’, there was a small earthquake, which rattled the house and shook the bed. It was probably no more than a 2.5 or a 3.0 on the Richter scale, (hardly worth noticing) but when it hit, Shelly and I froze for a moment looking into each other’s eyes, and I asked her,
“Did you feel the earth move?”
She moved in a few days later.