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Archive for September, 2009

I was six years old, which is strange, because I have a hard time remembering anything else other than this event around this age. I was raised in a neighborhood called Forest Hills in San Francisco, California. Not a lot of people outside of the neighborhood, tourists especially, know the strategic importance Forest Hill has when uttering the word “earthquake.” Considering the neighborhood’s high property values and homes that were built as far back as 1913, Forest Hill is located on solid rock. This solid rock allowed a lot of homes to avoid the kind of damage homes face when they are located on beds of sand (like in the Sunset District). Homes are not built like they were back in 1913. They were made of solid redwood and built with devotion and possessed a personal charm to them once complete. They were creative and situated just right, which does not correlate with how homes are built within San Francisco today. Now contractors and developers just build wherever there is space, claiming their designs are earthquake proof, negating that such a word “earthquake proof” may only refer to a medium sized earthquake in today’s standards.

As I was out by the detached garage at my grandmother’s home, the earth below me became violent, and gravity became even more evident once I was thrown off of my feet. As I landed on the ground, I felt helpless and vulnerable. The concrete pavement moved up and down at its grooves with such force, I felt like I was in an ocean of never-ending waves. I remember asking myself, “When will this end?” I was afraid, but not to the point where I was in a panic. There is one thing you have to understand about living in San Francisco: it’s the city of reincarnation. It burned down before, and was rebuilt. It was abused and pummeled by the forces of nature, but people love the city. When you love something, you just don’t leave it.

Now in the yard, after making my way from the driveway, I knew I was safe. Shy of being sucked into the ground, there was nothing that could fall on top of me other than the huge trees across the street, which were insanely enormous and heavy. After everything was over, there were only a few minor articles that were damaged, but nothing too extensive.

The point about earthquakes that I am trying to make is, if you understand them, and you understand your priorities, you most likely will make it through an earthquake in a much better state than someone who puts these issues in the back of their mind. Remember, earthquakes themselves rarely cause the demise of a human being. It is the structures humans build and the formation of living spaces that correlate with lifestyles that cause death. Even if someone lives in a home that has a solid foundation, is built from superior material, and is free from the destruction of falling debris, those around you will flock to such areas when faced with much worse.

The question that San Francisco has to ask itself is an irrational one, “Where will my inhabitants flock to when the city is burning to rubble?” And, “Will my inhabitants universally carry each other through these rocky times?” Dating back to the last major earthquake in 1906, such ideas of following order during chaos were not obeyed. The United States army was called in, not to mediate chaos, but to contain it. There is no doubt in my mind that a city with 850,000 people will, in unison, work together during actual chaotic events that place them in a position where they have lost everything they worked hard for. Other factors are unpredictable, like governmental response plans. They seem good on paper, but are far from perfect when put to use in an actual catastrophe.

By A.J. Harwood

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It was five o’clock, and I’d just gotten off work in the Financial District of downtown San Francisco. I called my wife, Jan, and I recall becoming angry after I’d talked with her. It seemed that she was putting words in my mouth. I had been talking along cheerfully, when suddenly she said: “I can see you’re having difficulty expressing yourself right now, so let’s just talk when you get home.” Never could figure that one out, although years later, I reasoned that she’d probably gone out and had a few beers and was behaving like the maintenance drinker that, at least on occasion, she was. In any case, I hadn’t thought I was having any particular difficulty expressing myself, so after the call, I was ticked.

While feeling angry at her, suddenly the earth began to shake. I was standing at the corner of Main & Market. I grabbed a street pole, and glass from the Wells Fargo building across the street began to fly in my direction.

“It’s an earthquake!” somebody screamed.

Turning around, I watched as the flag on top of the Ferry Building assumed a diagonal position. Later I would see this exact picture on the cover of Time Magazine.

I got to see it on the real, and my first thought was that God, shaking the Ferry Building, was saying to us all: “Ha! That’s what I think of your flag!”

That’s about the best of it. It took me three and a half hours to get home to the Richmond District. My mother was there freaking out. She never stopped talking, which put a little bit of a strain on me and my wife. After Mom left, my wife and I got into a huge argument. I had t0 take a walk to cool down. I honestly do not remember what the argument was about. We really had been getting along well in those days, but this particular day was bad. Again, I think she had relapsed on the beer without telling me. I don’t know how to explain her behavior otherwise.

Once I got back to the apartment, I was beat, and I slept like a baby while she stayed up all night listening to the news. Mayor Agnos told us all to take a day off the next day, so my buddy Rob came over for a chess game. Then Jan and I went to Golden Gate Park and had a very pleasant time talking to complete strangers and sharing earthquake stories like the one I just told you.

By Andrew Pope

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I was driving my 1985 Plymouth Voyager minivan on Blossom Hill Road in south San Jose, approaching Cottle Road, at 5:04 PM.  My first thought was that all of my tires had gone flat at the same time, as the van suddenly became almost impossible to steer.  Then I realized it was an earthquake, as the power poles began to sway and the traffic light suspended on its cables jumped up and down.  Being in a moving car, I didn’t feel the direct shock of the earthquake, as the tires and suspension system damped out all but the larger wave movement.

I had just dropped my daughter off at ballet class and was on the way to the soccer field with my boys.  I got to the soccer field and the coach had the kids sitting on the ground.  The large power lines near the soccer field were still swinging back and forth.  The radio news said the Bay Bridge had collapsed, so everybody decided soccer practice was over.

I was one of the first parents to get back to the ballet class, where the girls and the teachers were beginning to freak out.  When I got home, the electricity and water were off, but as campers we weren’t as inconvenienced as some of the neighbors.  We had one of the few swimming pools in the neighborhood, so I went around to all the neighbors and told them I had put the cover on the pool and we had 17,000 gallons of drinking water.  One of the neighbor ladies said “Eeww” – she wouldn’t drink swimming pool water – I told her to think it through and come see me when she got thirsty.  (It turned out more water was used for flushing toilets than for drinking.)  And the water and electricity were back on in a day and a half or so.

By Paul Burnett

(read this story for Paul’s daughter’s memory of being in the ballet class during the earthquake.)

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Well, I think it’s best to start with a little background… I was born in 1979 and my family moved to San Jose, CA when I was four. By 1989 I was 10, and I’d had duck-and-cover drills since kindergarden. My father was also very safety-conscious (it’s his profession), so we’d been drilled at home as well – if the ground starts shaking and you are indoors, get under the piano, stand in a doorway, or best of all, get into the bottom bunk bed (our bunk beds were hand made and pretty special – each post was a solid 4×4 piece of wood, the connecting pieces were 2×6’s – that sucker could have stood through a nuclear attack!)!

When the earthquake hit, I was 10 years old, and in ballet class. It was a fairly typical dance studio – very large open space, a full wall of mirrors, and two of the other walls were floor-to-ceiling windows. In other words, LOTS of glass. My memory is a little blurred, but I remember seeing the floor wave, kind of like the ocean – you could see the shock waves coming. I don’t remember how I felt at the time, but I don’t remember being scared – more excited, I think.

My ballet teacher (who was a newlywed and a fairly recent transplant from – well, somewhere without earthquakes!) did the worst thing possible – stood in the center of the room-made-of-glass and called for all the children to come stand with her. I was normally a very obedient child (at least in formal class settings!), but I KNEW that I was supposed to be in a doorway, so I broke away and ran for it. I really don’t remember it lasting that long, but since there was time to see it happening, ignore the teacher, run to the door and brace there, it must have been more than several seconds…

Luckily, none of the glass in the studio broke, and no one in any of the classes (there were several studios) was at all hurt. However, when went through the lobby of the studio to exit the building, the trophy cases in the lobby were smashed and many of the trophies had fallen out of the cases and were lying in the shattered glass on the ground. I remember picking our way carefully past the shattered glass in our soft-soled ballet slippers…

Again, my memory is foggy. I know we waited for our parents in the parking lot, because that’s where I was when my dad got there. However, I don’t know how LONG I waited for him. I know he’d dropped me off, then gone to my brother’s soccer practice, so he had to drive back – but it can’t have been far because I don’t think I waited long. I don’t remember being scared or worried or anything, but at this point, I may have been. I think by the time he got there, he knew that everyone was OK, because I think I remember him telling me that Mommy (who was at home) was OK and so was everything in my room (so maybe I was worried about my room?)… But it’s all very foggy.

I DO remember my ballet teacher collapsing into the arms of her husband when he arrived and sobbing that she “wanted to go HOME!” And I developed a rather unseemly case of superiority, because *I* knew what to do when the earthquake hit and *I* hadn’t been totally scared like that. I mean, honestly, what was the point in freaking out like that? The earthquake was over, and everything was OK!

Looking back, I still have a little bit of that feeling in me – and earthquakes are part of what I like about living in CA. This may be in part because I’ve never been personally injured, known anyone who has been personally injured, or lost anything more important than a class dish – or it may just be a result of growing up with them, but of all the natural disasters, I really do think that I’m best suited for earthquakes. You go about your life and every once in a while, the earth moves. Big deal! Heck, most of the time it’s kind of fun! It lasts a few seconds, you look around and check for damage, then continue going about your life. Much better than boarding up your window in preperation for a hurricane or hunkering down in a basement when you hear a tornado warning… This may come back to bite me when “The Big One” hits, but of all the natural disasters, I’ll take earthquakes any day! =)

By Vala Burnett

(Go here to read Vala’s father’s memories of Loma Prieta.)

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