Oct 19th, 2009
The defining natural event of my life and probably my oldest daughter’s (she’s now 23) was the Loma Prieta earthquake of Oct. 17, 1989. Like most major events, though, it has faded from memory, brought up only in discussions with my students about earthquakes — most of the world doesn’t experience them — or in remembrances of our time in San Jose, Calif.
But seeing a Salon posting this morning along with pictures of the Cyprus Freeway in Oakland (the one that collapsed) brought back memories of the most violent earthquake I’d felt in my three-plus decades of California living.
Along with droughts and wildfires, earthquakes and earthquake preparedness are a natural part of life in California. Things start to shake and you scurry under a table, hands wrapped around the back of your neck — a tiny measure of protection if you think about it. The building collapses onto your table, you might last a few seconds more if you remember to keep your fingers laced behind your neck.
So, what was I doing at 5:04 p.m. Oct. 17 (a Monday, I think)? I was changing a diaper, getting Alex and Jessica up from a late nap to head out to the park for playtime. When things started to shake, I grabbed Jessica, pulled Alex out from his exploration of the bathroom trashcan and ran for the doorway (2nd best place to stand, we were told). When it kept up — it felt like an eternity, not the 15 seconds they told us — we took cover under the dining room table. Brian called as soon as the shaking stopped and we guessed the magnitude, at least a 6.0 we thought, which was a far cry from the 7.1 it was officially pegged at.
In the hours that followed, we considered, then rejected, turning off our power; lost phone service — but not TV — and endured too-numerous-to-count aftershocks. That’s what sent Jessica, then 3 years old into our bedroom to sleep. She didn’t sleep alone for years after that. Try telling a toddler that those near constant trembles aren’t just more quakes.
While old town Los Gatos collapsed and unlucky drivers perished in the sandwiched freeway collapse, our damage was confined to potted plants. Even glassware survived, miraculously walking into drawers that opened to catch it.
If we’d truly suffered like so many people did, I’d not be feeling nostalgic. But in a way I do miss the excitement of a good shake. They came out of nowhere, and if you were like most Californians and didn’t suffer much if at all, they made a great story. Just ask Jessica. Or maybe not.