Twenty Years After Loma Prieta: Is Northern California Really Prepared for the Next Big Quake?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Like most people living in the Bay Area at the time, I can vividly recall the day the Loma Prieta Earthquake hit back in October, 1989. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. The temperature was well above 80 degrees. No wind. Peaceful. Heaven.

And then came Hell.


At 5:04 p.m. Oct. 17, 1989 I was sitting at my desk in an old brick building on the corner of Market Street and Second in San Francisco. When Loma hit, everybody in the PR office I was working in scrambled to the doorways and held on for dear life. You could hear the guts of the building buckle from the massive jolts. It was as if the Gods picked up the structure and shook it -- and shook it really well -- like a ketchup bottle. Fifteen seconds later, shocked and filled with apprehension, we looked around for signs of what to do next.

The electricity was out so we all made a slow -- very slow -- exit down the stairs and out into a new reality.

I'll never forget the vibe when I stepped out onto Market Street. There had been a mass exodus with hundreds of people walking from their offices and nothing but ... dead silence. Tragedy has a way of doing that to you -- for a while anyway. I drove a co-worker home and we heard of the collapse of the Bay Bridge on the radio. A portion of the Marina was on fire, too. We looked at each in shock. Later, after I dropped off my coworker, I saw the smoke rising from the Marina in the distance. Tragedy.


A few books had flown across the room in my little studio in Laurel Village, but there wasn't much damage, thankfully. Later that night, my neighbors invited everyone in the neighborhood over. A small group of us sat underneath a full moon on the back porch and did the only thing people would do in such a situation: Drink.

I recall heading about an hour's south to Santa Cruz some weeks later, about the time the pavilion business tents had been erected for many of the downtown businesses affected by the quake. The town had been leveled, its beating heart completely ripped out. But its soul remained intact and I was struck with how valiant the spirit of Santa Cruz was back then.


Loma rattled the earth -- and our senses -- but that great quake of 1989 also made us take action. Maybe it's just the DNA of nature, the world or the universe, but if you look closely enough, you'll notice that great things emerge from rubble. Plants, in their seedling states, in fact, have to rise through a lot of manure before they shine proudly toward the sun. You can say that about Santa Cruz County and the Bay Area, too. Loma, powerful as she was, shook the county to its core registering 7.1. on the Richter scale (later downgraded to 6.9). Nobody seemed to have been left unscathed -- inside and out. The death toll was 62 throughout the Bay Area--seven in Santa Cruz--and more than 3700 people were injured.

But in the aftermath, as the fires burned and locals sifted through all the wreckage, the communities came together in ways nobody could have expected.


Want to discover more about that fateful day and the ripple effect of change it created? Just click here for a full spread of stories, provocative photos, interviews with politicos of the day and more.

(And all this from the award-winning weekly at which I am Editor. There are some captivating 20th anniversary events to honor the growth and revitalized spirit that happened after Loma in Santa Cruz--most take place this weekend. Grab a peek here.)

In the meantime, is Northern California ready for the next big quake? All eyes seem to be on the Hayward Fault, which, when it shifts, will jolt Oakland and its surrounding areas. More on that here.


Photos/Photo Credits:

B&Ws: These great shots were taken by photographer Chip Scheuer, who worked for the Register-Pajaronian at the time. He was on the scene in Downtown Santa Cruz right when the quake hit. His shots, one of a firefighter emerging from a home he and his comrades just could not save, and another, of locals and rescue worker feverishly trying to find a survivor in the wreckage of the Ford's Department Store in Santa Cruz, capture the intensity of the moment.

Below: A few shots of Downtown Santa Cruz after the quake forced the city to rebuild--from the GT archives.



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