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Posts Tagged ‘California earthquakes’

I wrote to Kirsten Anderberg, a writer in California who covers a wide variety of issues, including earthquakes, after seeing her page on Loma Prieta with the above title. You can read about her here. She’s one of the few who have lived through probably the four most prominent West Coast earthquakes of the past 40 years, and you can read about each of them on her own website. I thought much of the story she told on her page would fit nicely here, so I asked for permission to reprint. She kindly said yes, and here’s her story:

At 5:04 pm, on October 17, 1989, I had just come from college classes, and was on my way to pick up my 5 year old son from his after school childcare. I decided to drop by Branceforte Library in the city of Santa Cruz to pick up a few books to read to my son, and as I stood in the library, I began to hear an odd noise. It sounded like a plane was going to crash into the building. I thought maybe it was a train heading for the building, but then realized there were no tracks going “into” the library building. Everyone around me appeared to stop moving as they listened. Then I noticed little puffs of dust coming out from in between the bricks of the library walls. Then, it hit. The floor began to shift dramatically, and I assumed it was an earthquake, and ran for the door.

As I ran for the library’s front door to exit the building, I saw most of the people were getting under tables. As I ran, there was a strange undertow on the floor. Although I was trying to move my feet towards the door, which was to the east, my feet kept being pulled back to the west, behind me. It was odd, and the only thing I can really compare it to is the undertow I have felt in rip tides on Pacific Coast beaches. That is the only other time I have tried to walk one way, and had my feet pulled another. I also remember stepping high, over the first 6 inches on the floor, to sort of step out of that weird pulling field. It felt magnetic or gravitational: it was a pulling sensation, although very subtle, and it seemed you could step “above” it. My feet were only pulled when close to or touching the floor; I was out of that pulling field when my feet were up a few inches off the floor. It seemed the pulling energy was flowing across the surface of the floor.

As I made it through the library’s front door, the ground was shifting violently beneath me and standing, walking, was a little hard. I ran out of the library to see telephone poles whipping back and forth like rubber, as the electrical wires above snapped and fell, still live, onto the sidewalks around us. Cars that were driving stopped in the middle of the street, askew, with doors open, asking what was going on. They say the quake lasted 15 seconds, but it seemed much longer, as if in slow motion.

As people began to discuss what had just happened, I ran as fast as I could towards my son’s childcare, which was about 2 blocks away. When I got there, the teachers and kids were all huddled under tables, and the teachers looked white as ghosts. They were there with approximately 30 kids, and this was their first earthquake experience. Just as my son came out from under the table to go home with me, another serious quake hit, an aftershock, and we all ran to go under the tables again, but then it stopped. I grabbed my son’s hand (he had turned 5 years old the week prior) and began to walk briskly home, as it was the evening, and it was getting dark, and I had no idea what was going on, the condition of our home after this quake, etc.

As my son and I walked home, every single house we passed had its chimney down. They had all fallen either in solid blocks onto driveways and lawns (if they were reinforced), or they had fallen as piles of bricks scattered around a house and its roof (if it was unreinforced). Almost all of the plate glass windows were shattered from the houses we passed as well. We were hearing rumors on the street on our way home that all of the bridges that connect east and west Santa Cruz, over the San Lorenzo River, that goes to the sea, were broken and impassible. People were standing on their lawns, mystified, asking us as we scurried by, “What was that?” Some asked if it was a nuclear blast or a bomb. I said I thought it was an earthquake.

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I had already picked up my daughter at her day care center and had gone in the late afternoon to get my son at his kindergarten class.

My son was the last student to be picked up.  His teacher and my kids and I were the only ones left in the classroom. As I spoke about something with Ms. Scott there came an unusual sound. It resembled a very powerful jet rumble. It stopped our conversation.

There is an aircraft corridor over us to the Monterey Peninsula airport so I think we both assumed it was just an enormous plane coming in…but the rumble became more powerful but not louder. It “felt” stronger.

A few seconds after we heard the rumble the building began to shift and make creaking sounds. The ground also. We felt some irregular lifting, kind of a roll.  My son’s teacher and I instinctively grabbed my children and we ran outside of the building and onto a grass bluff far enough away so that if the building came down we would be clear of it.  We then threw ourselves down on the grass and tightly held on to each other.

It was a surreal sight and feeling.  I had been through several earthquakes in my life here but I never experienced one so long lasting and powerful.

The entire school building in front of us was swaying back and forth.  The oak tree canopies near us were “swirling” in a seemingly illogical manner like the ground underneath them was being moved and shifted in jerks and their tops were vibrating in the same way. And you could hear the oak trees leaves rustling like someone was shaking a branch of these with great energy.

You could also hear something that most of us will never hear in our lifetimes. This was a continuous muffled land moving roar. A combination of trees shaking and dirt moving? Or maybe you feel this more than hear it. I’m not sure.

The earth-shaking event I was sitting on top of was sending breath taking waves of energy through me that were so incomprehensibly powerful that I was filled with a sense of fear, awe, vulnerability and fragileness that I had never imagined possible.   You felt so small and powerless and really believed that the physical world around you could be coming to a cataclysmic end!

Everything in your mental warehouse took on a different perspective. Your life, your childrens’ lives, your relationships to others and the society in which you lived.

While this great seismic shift was occurring people were stopping their cars in the street.  I remember a very expensive looking Mercedes Benz screeching to a halt and a well dressed woman driver jumped out and almost hysterically she screamed “Is this the big one?”  I yelled back “Yes!”

She flailed her arms and cried…”I’m moving from California and never coming back!”  She then jumped back in her car and roared off.

I was simply praying. Praying that the shaking would stop and we would be safe.

I also had brief thoughts about other places while the quake was happening.  I knew that the Monterey Peninsula (being on a slab of granite) was seldom the epicenter of larger quakes in this part of California.  I thought “if we are feeling this as powerful as we were here…someone else must be getting hit even harder!”

As I later learned that was the case with great damage and loss of life in the San Francisco Bay Area.  But even here we had many tilted telephone poles and cracked chimneys and home foundations and off-set porches and decks.

Being on top of a great earthquake is a life changing event.  The fear it creates in you is of a kind and magnitude that you can’t adequately describe in written words.  I suppose being close to a volcanic eruption would be worse.

One last view.  What I noticed during the quake was that everyone you came in contact with during the quake and throughout that evening and the next day seemed friendlier to you and others. It was as if you all went through an experience that made you feel like you could die at any instant. An experience that also made you realize how we are all just these small beings on a massive ball of unpredictably volatile dirt, water and fire.

Most everyone seemed to have this feeling of commonality.  We were all the same again.  The false human created differences between us had temporarily disappeared.  Rich and poor, better or worse dressed, old and young, different ethnic background, better educated versus less….these lines of separation were simply erased!   Everyone was reaching out to whoever was closest for shared comfort and hope.

In this way it was a religious experience.  A beautiful one really.

By Joe Bauer

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