I had a pretty shocking experience with this quake, and 20 years later, though some of the precise details may be a bit fuzzy, I will never forget it. This is long, but oddly enough, it's the first time I've written about it.
I was still an undergraduate at the time (College Eight) and had moved to Santa Cruz from Michigan in 1987. I had already lived through another major natural disaster about five years earlier, which was in some ways even more terrifying, but at least when it was over, it was over--no aftershocks. But I had only experienced one earlier earthquake, not too long before, and was working in an office at Oakes College at the time. I was a bit freaked out at the filing cabinets moving around and whatnot, but my co-workers just laughed, because it turned out to be a very minor quake.
On the day of the big quake, I was supposed to meet a friend of mine downtown at the Cooper House at 5:00. I was running late and was still at home, at a house I shared with my boyfriend and three other housemates, located on River St. (Highway 9), on the banks of the San Lorenzo River, a couple miles or so north of downtown Santa Cruz, just before the road starts to climb up into the woods. I was just about to leave but was still in my bedroom, which had its own bathroom, and when the quake hit, I grabbed hold of the door jamb between the bathroom and the bedroom, holding on for dear life with an arm on each side, as I realized this was a major quake and watched EVERYTHING come down in the room--TV, stereo, and all the bookshelves. I climbed over the rubble, grabbed my purse and keys, and headed toward the living room to go out the front door. On my way out I noticed that the kitchen was a major mess, with cupboards open and broken glass and food items all over the floor. I quickly ran out into the driveway. I had thought I was the only one home at the time, but soon one of my housemates came running out. He had been in his upstairs bedroom. We stood out there and watched the house shake as an aftershock hit. As far as we could tell the exterior of the house was OK and none of the windows were broken, but neither one of us wanted to go back inside. He left on foot to a neighbor's house, I think, and I got in my car to drive downtown, worried about my friend.
When I told this story to friends later, they asked why on earth I would have done that. But you have to understand that I had no idea of the damage downtown--I was too far away to see it, and all the buildings around me were still standing and didn't appear to have outside damage. Since it was daylight, I hadn't even realized the power was out. As soon as I got to the huge intersection of Highway 1, Highway 17, and Highway 9 and saw the stoplight out, I got my first inkling. I continued down River Street and parked in the lot behind the Cooper House, and I walked through the alleyway and saw all the windows blown out, debris everywhere, and saw that no one was left in the building. I walked out onto Pacific Ave., which at that north end had been hit the hardest. At some point I think I probably went into a state of shock of some sort. It was an unbelievable scene: collapsed buildings, huge piles of rubble filling the street, every window in every building blown out, with people running and screaming, and cops, paramedics, and firefighters everywhere. As many people said later, it looked just like one of those disaster movies--almost surreal. I continued walking south on Pacific for a few more blocks, in a daze, until a cop starting yelling through a bullhorn for everyone to get off Pacific. So I walked a block west to Cedar St. and continued south toward my friend's house on Laurel St., hoping she would be home. She was, and she was sitting on her front porch with her housemates and some neighbors, listening to a battery-operated radio. Some of the houses in her neighborhood were on fire, due to a broken gas line, but luckily this didn't happen to her house.
Turns out she was running late too, and was still at home when the quake hit! I can't imagine what we would have experienced if we were inside the Cooper House then. I stayed there, on her front porch, for quite a while, trying to calm down. This was difficult, however, not only because of what I had seen downtown, but also the news coming over the radio--that there was major damage in San Francisco and that the Bay Bridge had collapsed (the latter was not true; only a section of the upper deck had fallen onto the lower deck). I was worried about my boyfriend and my other housemates, so eventually I got up the nerve to walk back to my car and drive home. My boyfriend and all my housemates came home that night, and all of them had been on campus or other parts of town that didn't have as much damage; I was the only one who had seen the extent of the devastation. We had no electricity, no gas, no water (all of which I believe lasted for a week or so), and could not get through on the phone (kept getting the "all circuits are busy" recording), and clearly no one could get through to us, as it never rang. At some point within a day or two, we were able to find a store with a generator where we could buy more bottled water, batteries, candles, etc., though we had to wait in a long line that ran all the way out the door.
Two or three days later, we were finally able to get through on the phone, sporadically. I was able to call my very worried parents, who live in Oregon. They had been watching various national news, and all that was televised were stories about San Francisco and Oakland--nothing at all about Santa Cruz, except for maps that showed that the epicenter was very close to me. They said they were thinking that Santa Cruz must be completely gone--that it had fallen into the ocean or something.
After about five days without utilities, getting very little sleep because of the numerous aftershocks, which often happened in the middle of the night (and with each one I would immediately get up and run out the door in terror), and the constant whir of the helicopters overhead, which I guess were there to film news stories and/or deliver supplies, I had had enough. My boyfriend suggested that we take refuge at his mother's house in San Francisco. This might seem strange, but she had a big house on top of a huge hill above the Haight, built on very solid bedrock. There was minimal damage there, and all her utilities were working. So we drove up various back roads and spent a few peaceful days there, without any aftershocks, even. But we were also able to watch the news there, and that's when we heard the horrible stories about all the people who died, in Santa Cruz and the Bay Area, and I was particularly sickened about the number of people who were killed or trapped on the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland.
We came back to Santa Cruz after our housemates told us that all the utilities were functioning again. But the aftershocks continued regularly, lasting for nearly a month, if I recall correctly. The scariest thing is that the news was telling us that there was about a 50% chance that any one of these could be at least as big as the original quake, or even bigger. We discovered a large crack running through the cement floor of our garage, and we wondered if it continued, underneath the carpets where we couldn't see it, through the rest of the ground floor (which included my bedroom). And the apartment building next door, just a few feet away from our house, had suffered major damage to the foundation and had to be evacuated and rebuilt.
A few months later, long after the aftershocks had stopped (and our landlady was able to assure us that we were in no danger from the crack in the garage), I had this sudden realization that I was no longer living in a perpetual state of fear, as I had been for at least a month after the big quake. I guess I had post-traumatic stress syndrome and didn't even realize it. Downtown Santa Cruz, however, which was then closed off with chain-link fences, with many razed buildings (including the historic and beautiful Cooper House, much to the dismay of many), and the tents set up nearby for the still-operating businesses, was a constantly sad reminder. I left Santa Cruz in 1993 to move to Seattle, but I visited numerous times later, most recently two or three years ago. I have to agree with many others that the new downtown mall just has no soul now--despite its shiny new buildings and numerous shoppers and pedestrians, it bears very little resemblance to the original, which was such a treasure.
For many years afterward, and to a lesser degree even today, I immediately jump when anything shakes, like when a large truck drives by and rattles the windows. When I moved to Seattle I thought that at last I was getting away from earthquakes. Surprise! Turns out this area is rife with them, and though they are less frequent than in California, the experts predict that we will have a HUGE one here--much bigger than the Loma Prieta quake--anytime within the next 30 years. And we did have a big one, a 6.8 (a little less than Loma Prieta's 7.1), and it lasted a whopping 40 seconds, much longer than Loma Prieta's 10 to 15 seconds. Luckily, it was centered very deep underground, so the damage was much less, much of it to the historic Pioneer Square at the south end of downtown, which is built on landfill and contains many old brick buildings. I lived and worked in a part of town with much more stable ground, but it was still terrifying, as I was working inside an old brick building when it hit, with all 60 employees stampeding down a three-story stairwell, and I came home to an apartment where once again, everything had toppled over. It was another sobering reminder. And we have the infamous Alaskan Way Viaduct here, a double-decker elevated section of Highway 99, running along the downtown waterfront. It shares some frightening things in common with the Cypress Street Viaduct on the Nimitz Freeway, which collapsed in the Loma Prieta quake: It was also built in the 1950s, it also sits on unstable ground, and it has a very similar design. The city of Seattle has known for many years that the Viaduct will not survive a major earthquake (it was damaged in the 2001 quake here), but still the politicians continue to argue about possible solutions and nothing has been done about it. I refuse to drive on it.
I'm amazed that some people found the 1989 quake sort of fun, but I guess it depends on where you were and what you witnessed when it occurred. It was a truly awful experience for me, definitely one of the worst times of my life. I can think of only several things that happened then that were positive in any way. My housemates and I developed more camaraderie, as we had to suffer through our situation together and do the best we could, and the only thing there was to do in the evenings was sit around and talk by candlelight. Also, an "earthquake kitty" appeared on our doorstep, the morning after the quake, I believe. He was absolutely adorable, just a kitten, with long black hair. We assumed he must have gotten lost from his home during the quake, but he had no collar and he wouldn't go away, day after day. We didn't want to let him in because we already had a cat, but of course we had to take pity on him and give him food and water. After a few days of this, his heartbreaking little meows became too much, and we took him in. My boyfriend developed a particularly close bond with him and named him "Bob"; he turned out to be a wonderful cat, and our other cat eventually learned to tolerate him. Finally, I had a memorable experience a few days after the quake at a store, waiting in line to purchase some Duraflame logs (since we had no heat, I figured I could at least run the fireplace in my bedroom). The people in line near me all looked at me with astonishment, and one of them asked, "You still have a FIREPLACE?" Nearly all the fireplaces in town were brick, you see, and all of those had collapsed in the quake. I explained that my fireplace was metal, and everybody chuckled. It was a perversely humorous moment.