Sunday, October 17, 2010

Loma Prieta 1989 reminiscences

The last major earthquake to hit the San Francisco Bay Area was the Loma Prieta temblor on 17 Oct 1989. Now that my memories of the event are old enough to drink, I thought I'd write them down for posterity.

At the time, I was a drone working in a downtown San Francisco high-rise building. (Well, my job title wasn't "drone," but that accurately reflects my level of satisfaction.)

In school I had been thoroughly drilled in what to do when a quake struck: get away from the window and duck under the nearest table or reinforced doorway. So of course, I sat at my desk for the entirety of the tremor like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights, my mind refusing to accept that the shaking of the floor and walls could be the result of anything more serious than an exceptionally heavy cart being rolled at high speed down the hallway. By the time my paralyzed higher logic functions had processed that it was, in fact, an earthquake, the shaking was over. (The U.S. Geological Survey says the Loma Prieta quake lasted ten to fifteen seconds, making my poor reaction time embarrassing but not humiliatingly bad. Oh, and read the linked USGS report with a critical eye, inasmuch as the author made at least one big typographical mistake by stating that the quake occurred at 4:15 PM: in fact, the quake occurred at 5:04:15 PM. USGS, that is the sort of carelessness that we cannot afford in a primary source document.)

The building included some then-sophisticated seismic safety features, so it suffered little if any damage. However, individual offices were another story. Many of the choicer ones boasted free-standing bookshelves six or more feet high, and none of them was secured to a wall. One man's shelves fell against his desk and blocked the path to the door; though he was uninjured, it took him an hour to make his way out.

On reaching the street, the quake's most immediately obvious effect was the power outage that had rendered the traffic lights and electric buses inoperative. This, in turn, had brought traffic to a standstill in every direction. Since the subway was also electrically powered, I assumed it would not be running, and even if it were, it would be packed to the gills. The weather was warm, the days were still long, and I was young, so it seemed reasonable under the circumstances not to rely on catching a ride, but instead to walk home to the inner Sunset district.

Heading southwest on Market Street, I walked through the financial district. None of the relatively modern skyscrapers had suffered any externally visible damage and the main evidence of a crisis were the gridlocked streets and milling crowds. Leaving the financial district, though, damage became more evident, especially as I reached the more run-down areas near the Tenderloin and Civic Center. There, the older buildings had suffered shattered windows and there was powder, as from plaster, on the sidewalks. One small building's brick front had completely collapsed into the street, leaving the second- and third-floor rooms exposed; the first floor, by contrast, was occluded by the brick rubble.

By the time I reached Market and Gough, I had been walking for the better part of an hour and I was thirsty. One of the small grocery stores was open and had posted handwritten signs advertising bottled water, but the price was much higher than usual. It was my first brush with price-gouging and although I suppose it shouldn't have surprised me, it did: I had been so impressed by the relative civility and calm of my fellow involuntary pedestrians that I thought we were immune to the usual unseemly instincts of human beings in times of crisis.

At some point, I turned off Market to walk up through Twin Peaks. I think I was concerned that the elevated part of Market Street, just east of where it turns into Portola, might have been damaged; the collapse of the upper decks of the Bay Bridge and the Cypress Expressway had been widely reported by that time, making all elevated roadways suspect in my mind. It was a pity that I didn't stay on Market, since the observation area near the intersection with Corbett boasts one of my favorite views of the City. That day, of all days, the view might have been especially memorable.

Though I don't remember my exact path -- I meandered, even though it prolonged an already long journey; I couldn't help thinking of this as something of a jaunt, in spite of the terrible circumstances -- at some point I found myself walking up 14th Street, just west of Castro. One would never have known an earthquake had occurred just by looking here: the rather upscale houses had suffered no visible damage and there were, if I recall correctly, even lights on in many of them at a time when many other neighborhoods through which I had passed had lost power.

From 14th Street, I turned onto Roosevelt Way and followed its curving length to 17th Street, then Twin Peaks Boulevard, then Clarendon Avenue. Clarendon passes over one of the Twin Peaks. On the eastern side, it is a two-lane road completely lined with single-family homes; near the summit, the homes give way to what I believe were the original inhabitants of the area, tall evergreens.

What made this part of the walk memorable was the abrupt change in my perception of the whole experience. Auto traffic speeds along at 35 MPH or better at the summit, which is great if one is travelling on Clarendon but intimidating if one is trying to turn onto it, or worse, to cross it from one of the side streets since Clarendon has no stop signs at that intersection. Clarendon sees little pedestrian traffic as a rule and correspondingly little attention is paid to providing crosswalks or other assistance to walkers. Darkness was falling, but this area was still without electric power so the street lights were out. I was wearing a dark grey tweed jacket and black slacks, making me virtually invisible against the backdrop of the dark green and brown trees.

Naturally, it was at this intersection, risky for cars even in daylight and dangerous for pedestrians at any time, that I found I had to cross Clarendon (on the other side of the intersection, Clarendon lacked a sidewalk). My little adventure, as I had thought of it up to that point, was suddenly a lot less fun: all I could think of was winding up as a stain on some fast-moving Oldsmobile's front grille.

While I caught my breath -- I had set a brisk pace coming up the hill, realizing that walking after dark on this night would be hazardous -- I tried to think of an alternate route. None came to mind, though, and the thought of being paralyzed by my indecisiveness until the next morning finally spurred me to dash across.

I would never have guessed that I would set a personal speed record in penny loafers.

It was halfway down Clarendon that I got my only offer for a ride that day. A woman in a station wagon, her daughter in the back seat, slowed down and yelled to me through the open window to hop in. It was a kind offer, and the sensible thing to do would have been to accept it, but a combination of borderline clinical paranoia (an evidently ineradicable part of my makeup) and idiotic pride (I wanted to be able to say I walked the whole way) made me refuse. She offered again, apparently sure that I was only being polite, but when I insisted, she reluctantly went on her way.

It took a little over three hours to make the whole journey. It wasn't exotic or especially dangerous; nevertheless, it was a trip I'll never forget.

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