Saturday, October 17, 2009

5:04 pm October 17, 1989

I had gone to work at the VA hospital early that morning, so I was home at 5:00 that evening. I was standing in the kitchen when the earthquake hit.

At first, like many people, the initial jolt made me think that a truck had hit the building. I lived in a three-story apartment that had probably been built in the 1970s. But the jolt became a rumble, which became a roll, and soon the whole room was rocking.

Although it was only 15 seconds long, my mind had plenty of time to flit through many thoughts. I braced myself in the doorway of the kitchen. Behind me, I could hear the cupboards fly open and all my dishes spill out and break. I turned to see my collection of antique teapots fly from their shelf and shatter into a thousand pieces. Then I turned to the living room and saw my harp swaying dangerously. Because harps are designed to be tilted back against the player's shoulder, they have a very high center of gravity. It isn't hard to tip one over. I stumbled into the living room and grabbed the harp and held on. 15 seconds seemed like forever. "This is a big one" I thought. "Is it going to be the big one?" The noise got louder and louder. A deep earthly rumble, accompanied by crashes, shattering, banging.

And then it stopped. Every car in the parking lot below my window seemed to have an alarm system going off. It was unnerving to hear. Like every other resident on the floor, I went to my apartment door and stepped out. "Are you okay?" "Yes, are you okay?" Strangers became comrades in disaster. We all cared about each other. The woman across the hall from me was about my age and we had a nodding acquaintance. We both had the idea to check on the elderly residents upstairs, so we went together. I think we were both shaking ourselves and simply operated out of reflex. It was very important to us to feel that everyone was okay. We went upstairs where the same scenario was playing out that we'd seen on our floor. People were standing at their apartment doors, reassuring themselves that nobody was hurt.

Minutes later I returned to my apartment. It was a mess. The kitchen floor was full of broken china and the cupboards hung open, with some dishes and food hanging half out. I had a short bookshelf in the living room that had had plants on it and a vase of flowers. All the books had flown out horizontally and the plants had fallen. Dirt had come out of the broken pots and the vase of flowers provided enough water to make mud on the books. Items were broken in the bathroom. I didn't know where to start. It was as if in a matter of seconds my apartment had been vandalized. I felt helpless and had trouble grasping what had happened.

The damage in my apartment wasn't terrible, relative to everything that happened that day, but it was terrible to me. A home is a safe, personal space, and any violation of that can be a bit traumatic.

My water didn't work. The electricity was off. I could hear sirens from emergency vehicles. I could hear people walking up and down the hall outside hauling items to the dumpster. There was the sound of people sweeping up glass. Windows had broken in the apartments above. At some point, the aftershocks began. Some were small, some were enough to make me bolt out of bed in the days that followed. Each was unnerving.

My boyfriend (who is now my husband) called. Their power was out at the house he shared with three other guys. They happened to have a whole freezer full of ice cream. Nothing to do but eat it - would I like to come over? After cleaning up what I could, I grabbed my car keys and went. I didn't want to be alone.

I don't remember noticing the pool at my apartment, but the pool at my boyfriend's house was amazing. Half the water had sloshed out. I was halfway through a bowl of ice cream when I finally thought about my workplace.

I worked at the Palo Alto VA hospital. If you look at an aerial map of California, you can easily discern the San Andreas fault. If you look closely, you will see that the VA hospital lies directly on it.

It only took me five minutes to get there and what I saw was eerie and a bit frightening. Night was falling, and the parking lot of my building was full of mental patients wandering. The third floor of my building was a lock-up ward for the severely mentally ill. It was utterly destroyed in the earthquake. A few doctors and nurses were trying to shepherd the patients and keep them all calm. I parked my car and dashed into my ground floor office to check my freezer. It contained spinal fluid from years of study of Alzheimer's patients in our center. Thankfully, it was running smoothly on a backup generator. I would later learn that the rest of the hospital was not so lucky. An entire storage room full of preserved brains of autopsied patients was destroyed along with all its contents. The pathologist who had spent a lifetime studying this tissue had to be physically restrained to keep from going in and trying to save her samples. The morgue was destroyed, and the active cases on the autopsy table had to remain there for days before it was deemed safe enough for cleanup crews to go into the building.

Days later, an office manager and I would sneak up to the third floor lock up (the "flight deck" as it was called) to look at the damage. Ceiling beams were down, dust was thick everywhere. It was like a horror movie set. We found moldy coffee in coffee cups and all the signs of a hasty exit.

There was no "getting back to normal" after the earthquake. There was just a new normal that I had to adjust to. Everyone had to talk and share their stories. Everyone knew someone who had suffered badly. Everyone had a story of someone's dramatic escape or near-miss. Everyone told of how they were nearly on the Cypress overpass that collapsed. The endless news reporting was fatiguing, and at first I watched a lot just to digest what had happened, but when I reached the point of saturation, I had to turn it off.

Am I prepared for the next one? In some ways yes, in some ways no. It's the gamble we all take. Why do I live here? Because it is the most gorgeous place on the planet, and the chance of an earthquake is not something that hangs over my head like the threat of doom every day. I'd far rather live here than in tornado country, or someplace that could flood.

I do miss those teapots though.

11 people stopped folding laundry to write:

Lynn said...

Thanks for sharing your story. For those of us that moved here later, we need to hear these stories to be reminded that it *will*, not could, happen again. And I'm sorry about your teapots. We once had a car stolen, and all I missed was the stuffed animal that was in it :-(

The Mother said...

We had a similiar problem in the Texas Medical Center after Hurricane Alicia.

Why the engineers still put power grids in the basements of the med center, which is actually a few feet BELOW sea level, in a city that floods routinely is beyond me.

Or a brand new vivarium, housing research animals with genetic strains it took generations to breed.

All wiped out in hours. The researchers in the Med Center lost everything they'd spent their entire careers building.

I understand the same thing happened in New Orleans when Katrina hit.

Humans are not yet above natural disasters. We are not, yet, masters of this universe.

Denise said...

I have yet to live through a large earthquake. (I haven't yet experience one where anything gets broken.) However, since moving up to the San Bernardino Mountains it always surprises me how LOUD the earthquakes are up here. We get barely any shaking at all, but it sounds like a plane is breaking the sonic barrier over head. WEIRD

Katrina said...

I remember it, too. But I was only 6 and lived 50 miles away, so we didn't have much damage. Thanks for sharing. =)

Jaime @ Just Add Laughter said...

Wow, thanks for sharing!!

I was only 8, and I was just visiting my grandparents in Fremont. We couldn't find my 4-year old sister.

Luckily, we only lost a cookie jar at their house. But if my grandma had gone to work that day, she would have been on one of the bridges when it happened.


Very well written. Thank you for sharing.

Branlaadee said...

Thanks for sharing. I was in Fremont with my 10 month old and 7 year old, plus almost 10 kids that I was babysitting and had over playing that evening. My husband was under the car that was on jacks, changing the oil. My grandfather and cousins were actually at the big game. Luckily, none of my family was hurt and had very little damage done to our homes. I will never forget that day though.

Just a tip we learned that day...always have an out of state person you can all call and check up on eachother with. My Grandma was in Chicago. We couldnt call eachother because all the lines were system busy, but we could call Chicago. It was a big relief knowing the rest of my family was safe.

FaithChick said...

WOW! i cant even imagine. Of course living in OK we are always running from tornadoes but at least with tornadoes we have at least a little warning. Now that I can talk about.

M said...

You did a great job describing what most of us lived through that day. I moved to the Dallas area almost 2 years ago ... and I agree with you ... I'd rather be in CA any day. Living in "Tornado Alley" though doesn't bother me anymore than living in "earthquake country" did. Be prepared and lets the chips fall where they may.

Having spent 45 plus years in CA, I was in several large earthquakes and rarely suffered any damage. I'm sure the same will be the case for the tornados here in Texas ...

thatgirlblogs said...

I remember it well -- was in Milpitas, at work.

What A Card said...

Yikes! Living on the East Coast, I just have memories of seeing all that on the news. Glad you were okay!

I'm not sure if I'd prefer the risk of tornadoes or earthquakes. Apparently, I choose the risk of blizzards...

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