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Reflections on the Loma Prieta Earthquake, 20 Years Later

Posted: 10/17/09 11:00 AM ET

Twenty years ago, the whole world watched as San Francisco faced its greatest disaster in modern times. Loma Prieta's earthquake, reported as 7.1 then, broke up a first-ever Bay Area World Series, broke lives, buildings, highways and bridges. It was the most costly natural disaster on record in America at that time, with just the physical damage estimated in the billions of dollars.

In thirty minutes, with more than a half dozen motorcycle police officers clearing a path through traffic-jammed streets, I was at the Fire Department command post boarding an FBI helicopter to view our City. What I saw scared the hell out of me -- pitch blackness punctuated by dozens and dozens of fires raging throughout the City with the largest in the heart of the Marina.

For the next 48 hours, after making sure that my family was safe, I stayed at the City Command Center, directing our emergency response, calling the commanding General at the Presidio to ask for some 2,000 troops at his command to immediately be made available, and setting into motion those efforts needed to take us past the first week and into recovery.

At that time, I wasn't familiar with the words of Ernest Hemingway that "The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are stronger at the broken places."

Twenty years later, Hemingway could easily have been describing San Francisco.

There were important lessons that I and others learned as we confronted the City's urgent needs, lessons that I believe can help in future disasters.

Some of the things we learned then, hour by hour as we faced each need, can and should be put into place long before a disaster. Some are steps that need to be taken to ensure immediate safety, and some are creative, on-the-spot actions needed to move toward recovery. You quickly learn that an effective response is going to require everybody from well-trained first responders in police, fire, and medical personnel to building inspectors, engineers and accountants.

Disaster preparedness begins years in advance, and requires more than one-day disaster drills. When the 1989 earthquake hit, the newer parts of the city, particularly in the high-rise financial district, did not crumble because we had required that new buildings have foundations that went to the bedrock -- well beyond unstable topsoil. Candlestick Park, only recently retrofitted under my predecessor Mayor Dianne Feinstein, held through the quake, protecting tens of thousands of spectators present for the opening of the World Series. Building code requirements had been put into place years earlier, despite the claims from some that the additional cost harmed business.

It requires political courage to stand up to anti-business charges by requiring stiffer business codes, but it is the community that needs protection, not a politician's popularity.

Today we know that our city faces the prospect of extensive loss of life and property if steps are not taken to secure older "soft story" buildings with garages at street level, yet the political courage still needs to be found to act in the face of opponents frightened at today's cost to protect against tomorrow's disaster.

On October 17, when I arrived at the City Command Post, the city's disaster coordinator had already collapsed from stress and was hospitalized. I never saw him. Undoubtedly an earnest man competent in creating a thick binder of disaster plan logistics, the actual reality of the disaster caused a severe reaction.

Being prepared means placing your best people in charge of planning and preparation. This is not the place for soft political patronage. When the disaster hits, it is too late to put your best people in charge of planning and preparation.

Even your best people need to know that, as they help take care of the city, that their families and loved ones are safe and cared for. Smart plans should include meeting the needs of the families of the disaster response leaders, the police and fire chiefs and others, so that they can focus on the city's emergency without anxiety for loved ones.

Until you've been through an earthquake, you won't realize that earthquakes keep repeating for hours or days with aftershocks. Each time, vulnerable buildings become more fragile, or even collapse. That means being watchful for any eventuality by taking control of the area with any available and necessary authority.

In my case, that included ordering dispersing troops to guard the most exposed, stricken areas of the city and closing all bars. I was concerned about people carelessly drinking, knowing that aftershocks certainly would further shake the city. Closing the bars turned out to be the only criticism I faced in the first 72 hours, and that came from a well-known columnist with a reputation for frequenting bars late at night.

The city has an excellent primer now for all of us, at www.72hours.org, and everyone should read it. The title -- 72 hours -- comes from the realization that, especially in San Francisco, we all need to be able to handle our basic needs for the first 72 hours. In 1989 the main avenues like the Bay Bridge collapsed and the others had to be checked for safety. The airport was closed. No one could reach us by land from the outside except via south from the Peninsula.

Do not expect others to arrive and tell you what you will need. First of all, they won't know the population of your community the way you do. Offers of assistance will come from public and private sources -- from FEMA, the State, the Red Cross and others. You need to tell them what you want and where.

Sometimes you may need to embarrass them into action. A few days after the quake, I was on Larry King Live describing the situation when they brought on the FEMA director in Washington, D.C. This federal agency was not meeting the city's need and the director had not returned my calls fast enough to suit me. I told him what I wanted and asked for his home number on live national television so that I could call him right after the show. He didn't like being "called out" but I got what I needed for my city.

That first night of October 17 also was when the Red Cross first approached me -- for what I thought would be an offer of assistance. "I'm glad to see you," I said immediately. "Tell me what you can do for us."

The answer was not what I expected. The Red Cross representative had not come with an offer of assistance, but a request that I tape a commercial the Red Cross could use to begin soliciting contributions. The assistance would come later.

When it did come, contributions from generous donors totaled in the tens of millions of dollars. But I learned it was being kept by the Red Cross instead of being used to help the Bay Area. I called them out on it, knowing that thousands of people gave something in hopes of helping our recovery and that of the many families and businesses devastated in the earthquake.

Strong words were spoken, and in the end, the Red Cross yielded to the argument that our needs were still unmet and that they had resources that had been donated to help us.

When that money arrived, I pulled together the political leadership of the entire Bay Area to devise a formula so that the money would go where it was needed most. It speaks well for the Bay Area that regionalism prevailed as all the Bay Area counties pulled together toward a common goal of healing its communities (Santa Cruz, hard hit but far less famous, needed and got the most). I will never forget the Marin representatives saying they were not the hardest hit and to give their share to someone else.

In San Francisco, it allowed us the ability to better house the homeless who had been sheltered in buildings destroyed in the Quake. Their right to replacement housing had been denied because they weren't permanent residents in the buildings that housed the homeless programs. The result was the first-of-a-kind transitional housing to help individuals recover from homelessness, instead of just sheltering them in hopes that their personal storms would somehow end.

That was an example of bureaucracy being in the way of recovery. At other times, a recovery is going to require the best that city workers -- bureaucrats -- can deliver.

On the night of October 17, a call from the White House was put through to me at the Command Post. Vice President Dan Quayle was in San Diego, and wanted to fly to Oakland to meet me there the next day. I explained that the Bay Bridge was down and I could not leave my city with fires raging and after shocks continuing, but that if he could come to San Francisco, I would go anywhere to brief him right away.

The next day, at an impromptu press conference, a reporter asked me what I thought about the Vice President coming to San Francisco. I responded with, "He is in Oakland and I could not leave that day to see him." No, the reporter said, Vice President Quayle had helicoptered into the Marina, met with a volunteer for photos, and left. I was flabbergasted. I couldn't imagine how the Vice President would come to San Francisco and not meet with those of us trying to stabilize the city. And I said so. "That ticks me off."

That did it. The next day the national press was onto the story of the Mayor of San Francisco "ticked off" at the Vice President. It became its own 24-hour media firestorm. The Vice President's office fired back as the east coast papers reminded the country that he had angered the Governor of Puerto Rico with a similar photo-op several weeks before during Hurricane Hugo.

I could almost imagine that the result would be a slower federal response for the City because Washington was angry about my remarks.

That night, I talked to my 75-year-old Greek immigrant mother, telling her I was worried about the impact on the city. "Don't worry, son," she answered. "It's small potatoes ... small potatoes" -- one of her wonderful motherly Greek expressions that means just like it sounds, small stuff.

The next morning, David Brinkley and Sam Donaldson were interviewing me on their Sunday morning newsmakers, and the incident with Dan Quayle came up. How did I feel about it, they asked. I hesitated for a moment and then repeated my mother's expression with the same Greek American accent: "It's small potatoes ... small potatoes."

Both newsmen laughed aloud. Perhaps my mother had recalled, but I certainly did not remember that it was just a few weeks earlier that Vice President Quayle had misspelled "potato" while visiting a school. For weeks afterwards amused viewers from all over the country mailed bags of small potatoes to the mayor's office.

My fears were really calmed, however, only days later when President Bush came to see first-hand the impact and needs of the Bay Area. After a briefing at Moffett field, he flew first to Oakland on Marine One, the president's helicopter, with several additional helicopters to ferry local leaders and officials like me.

As we prepared to leave Oakland a Secret Service came to the auxiliary helicopter where I was and told me the President wanted me to join him in Marine One. The rotors were whirring and dust was blowing everywhere, so when I entered Marine One, my eyes were almost blurry until I got close to where I was supposed to be.

There, staring at me, sat President Bush, Governor Deukmejian and Senator Pete Wilson -- the three most powerful Republicans for our state and city. Recalling the Quayle imbroglio, I immediately threw my hands up in the classic surrender pose and said, "I'm sorry and I'll never do it again." All three broke into laughter, and the President gestured to me to sit next to him to personally describe what we would see as we flew over our city.

If people are going to be allowed back into their homes, first you have a responsibility to know that it's safe for them to enter. For us, that meant seeking volunteer building inspectors from nearby communities to join our city staff in quickly inspecting hundreds of buildings. Gas lines could be broken threatening to expand fires, electricity could be off, as it was in parts of the city for days. Water to shower and cook will be off. All of those things are not just inconveniences; they are hazards that must be addressed before residents can enter their homes.

People in the community will be in stress, and they will need to find things that are familiar. Leadership should be expert at that ... whether it is arranging for instructions in a language or dialect that is familiar, certain foods to be available, or anything else that is appropriate. In the Mission, with a substantial Latino population, people stayed outside, camping in city parks and building cooking fires. Some police wanted to cite them for illegal fires, and I told them to do nothing and sent sound trucks to communicate further instructions in the language they knew best.

Meeting communications needs also means dealing with a national and international media presence. In no time at all we had media trucks and broadcast satellite trucks parked by the dozens and the next thing I knew I had every national TV anchor was asking for an exclusive interview. It was clear we needed a media policy for disasters because, properly handled, such policies can be very useful in calming the public and aiding the recovery.

As the city's leader, you must be a constant visible presence in communicating the status of the situation and responding to the unexpected with calm information. The reaction of a community is much like an individual to stress and crisis -- as soon as you know your own condition, you look to see how others are reacting. In a crisis situation that is magnified beyond any normal circumstance and that is why panic and fear can spread too easily.

We involved people in the response. Within an hour of the earthquake, I was on television asking San Franciscans to "look after one another."

And they did ... dragging hoses from the Bay to help firefighters in the Marina, directing traffic on darkened street corners, showing neighbors how to turn off gas lines, walking up flights of stairs to help trapped elderly or bring them food.

There was no rioting ... no looting ... even the crime rate went down during those months! San Francisco, with all of its diversity, pulled together and showed the world on prime time that it was made of the right stuff!

It was the forerunner of a citywide neighborhood disaster response system we initiated the following year called Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) and supervised by the Fire Department. Today, NERT has organized and trained more than 25,000 San Francisco residents by neighborhoods.

In the Marina we invented new bureaucratic procedures on the spot to meet another need. People could see their homes were still standing, with precious possessions inside. Yet safety experts warned that aftershocks could still bring these homes down. We created a red-yellow-green tag system to designate which homes were safe, fragile or too dangerous to enter. Today, that is standard protocol.

Badly distressed people begged for the chance to enter even for a few minutes to grab what they cherished most, family heirlooms, photographs, key documents, and even stashed money. With this in mind, we arranged for protective escorts to accompany those whose homes were tagged red to enter for 15 minutes to take what they could. It was a stunning sight to see residents frantically shoving family photos, heirlooms and other personally precious things into a plastic bag and tossing it out the window so they could efficiently use their 15 minutes.

If a building had to be demolished, we set up a "soft' takedown so the family could stand by and go through debris for anything of value to them. When the debris was taken to a dump, a place was designated for families and individuals to go and spend more time searching for valuables.

In most cases they were grateful for the chance to recover what they did, but they also had the sense that each of them had some control ... some participation ... in a decision that affected them in a critical time.

Recovery has to begin immediately and it has to start by documenting and identifying the costs for every issue attributed to the disaster ... employee overtime, rebuilding costs, medical costs, and emergency repairs. I knew that the attention of the nation would only last until the next disaster somewhere else. So, on October 18 I put a financial "SWAT" team together to track every expense, and told them if they weren't sure, to put it down and we would argue later.

To meet needs that could not be covered by government relief, I also set up a City Fund to receive charitable donations that I could control because we knew better than any outside organization what my city needed and what we could afford.

Everyone needs to understand that the community needs time to grieve and heal. The political leadership plays a very public role in this process. In addition to making oneself very visible to comfort the citizenry, we created outlets for individuals and children in schools to record their experiences and place those recordings in the public library.

Behind the scenes, I did not allow the World Series to restart despite intense pressure from the commissioner of baseball.

While the Giants and A's were most supportive, the Commissioner threatened me with bad publicity saying, "He would hate to be the first mayor in history who caused the premature end of the World Series."

I responded with "And I would hate to be the first mayor to resume a World Series while we were still digging out bodies in Oakland ... never mind a ball park (Candlestick) that has not been properly inspected to determine its post earthquake capacity to hold 60,000 World Series fans."

My sense of public mourning required that we wait until the last body was recovered from the rubble ... especially in the collapsed Cypress freeway. It was essential that we show respect. The Commissioner of Baseball stopped arguing and waited until the last victim was located and Candlestick was deemed to be safe.

Do not expect to put the city back the way it was. There will be pressure from those who believe recovery and making things whole means returning to the status quo.

In the aftermath of Loma Prieta, major decisions had to be made about repairing or demolishing the elevated Embarcadero freeway. The State of California Transportation Department engineers pressed for it to be retrofitted with thick concrete columns holding up the double-decker freeway that loomed 40 feet over the city's waterfront.

Groups from Chinatown, where I had always had strong support, vociferously in favor of the retrofit and the Chamber of Commerce, Fisherman's Wharf merchants, and many Telegraph Hill residents endorsed keeping the Embarcadero Freeway.

Even the Chronicle's great columnist Herb Caen, for whom a section of the new surface Embarcadero is named, wrote in 1990: "While Agnos talks air-ly and eerily about a $120 million underground freeway-mit-park on the Embarcadero, the homeless proliferate and the graffito on Muni buses gets worse. Disgraceful priorities, even if you haven't asked me."

Everyone wanted immediate and easy access and egress to that congested part of the city and it was demonstrated in a city vote in favor of retaining the elevated freeway just three years prior. The lobbying and public argument was vociferous but I still wanted the best guarantees for the future safety of our city, not to mention the opportunity to examine a once in lifetime chance to remove terrible blight on the entire eastern waterfront.

The highway engineers could never make a truly reliable case that a retrofit would guarantee safety in the next "big one." I ordered studies to determine traffic impacts. This convinced me that the city would be better off demolishing the monstrosity.

I went to Washington to ask for federal funds allowing us to finally tear down the Embarcadero, and challenged and re-challenged the estimates from California transportation officials comparing the cost of a retrofit with a teardown and a boulevard replacement. Finally the numbers came together.

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi's leadership was enormous and won the day for my position on the issue.

At City Hall, getting the political numbers to come together was equally challenging. More than 22,000 citizens signed petitions to require a city vote to restore the double decker freeway. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce added their strong voice to the opposition with the first complete shut down of Chinese merchants in 100 years to march on city hall the day of the vote for my proposed demolition plan.

Finally, the Board of Supervisors voted to support my plan (for a tear down rather than a retrofit) on a razor thin 6-5 vote. There were those who never forgave me for that, and in 1991 when I ran for re-election, Chinatown didn't give me the support they had in all my earlier elections.

I lost.

Believe me, that hurt...but I'd do it again in a heartbeat because it was so worth it. Today the new Embarcadero is a hugely popular destination for visitors and San Franciscans alike.

Twenty years later, there is no question that the biggest loss would have been to allow massive concrete columns to keep a double-decker freeway from blocking the city to one of the great civic treasures. And several other demolished freeway related off ramps at Franklin Street and at Gough Street revitalized the Hayes Valley commercial and residential community.

Economically, as well, the value has been estimated to be worth billions of dollars in the next 25 years. It made possible our waterfront baseball park, the world-renowned Ferry Building market, the historic streetcars running from the Castro to Fisherman's Wharf, building the GAP corporate headquarters, and new parks, housing, restaurants and businesses.

It is nothing less than a showcase for one of the world's great cities. In short, that one decision emanating from an enormous disaster allowed this generation of San Franciscans to fulfill the ancient Athenian oath: I promise upon my honor to leave our city better than I found it.

Today, urban planners and thinkers ask us to focus on creating "sustainable communities," meaning communities that serve us not just for today but also for the many years stretching into the future. It is a visionary approach, one that challenges the status quo with the hope that things can be made better, even if we can't see the results before the next election, or the next budget cycle. It puts faith in what we can create when we work together, listen to each other, and find that the common ground we share is not just the earth beneath our feet, but our hopes and dreams.

Because the earth beneath our feet can shake, and destroy what we thought we had. But when a community fastens onto its common hopes and common dreams, it can still come out stronger at the broken places.

I know, because I saw it happen for San Francisco.