Living in Earthquake Country

Damage to the American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) from the Loma Prieta earthquake caused a shutdown and reconstruction for years. Fortunately, there were no people in the theater at the time of the earthquake. (Photo by Frederick Larson/The Chronicle)

Damage to the American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) from the Loma Prieta earthquake caused a shutdown and reconstruction for years. Fortunately, there were no people in the theater at the time of the earthquake. (Photo by Frederick Larson/The Chronicle)

Earthquakes are something I would never get used to. Each one gives me the feeling of utmost vulnerability and sometimes terror. The first time I remember experiencing an earthquake was one late evening with my family in Manila. I was five years old and having dinner with my parents when we heard what sounded like tapping on the roof. My father looked up at the ceiling, wondering what it was, when suddenly the whole house started swaying. The sound must have been triggered by the movement of the house structure. And then it was over. After my parents checked that everyone was all right and there was no obvious damage to the house, we finished our meal.

Casiguran Earthquake

There were occasional earthquakes that happened through the years, but there was one I will not forget – the Casiguran earthquake. The 7.3-magnitude quake, with the epicenter in Casiguran located north of Manila, hit Luzon on August 2, 1968. Although miles away from the epicenter, Manila and the immediate surrounding metropolitan area took the hardest blow.

I remember waking up at around 4:00 a.m. to a violent thrust of the house that almost threw me out of my bed. I held on tight to both sides of my bed and started praying the “Our Father,” but after finishing the prayer, the shaking still had not subsided. I thought for a second that it was either a very long tremor or that I must have prayed like Speedy Gonzalez.

Finally, the shaking stopped and I heard my dad run up the stairs – my parents were already awake at the time. He checked up on us children and then inspected the house for cracks on the walls, before the phone rang. My father was covering Malacañang for the daily newspaper Philippines Herald at the time. The call came from the Office of the President informing him that President Marcos was on his way to Binondo, where a building reportedly collapsed to the ground – it was the Ruby Tower. After making sure we were all right, Daddy boarded the press car that arrived to pick him up.

Almost 300 people’s lives were lost, plus hundreds more were injured in Manila, mostly from the collapse of the Ruby Tower apartments, which was the reason the Casiguran earthquake was sometimes called the Ruby Tower earthquake.

Earthquake Drills

While parts of the city were recovering, fire and earthquake drills in school were doubly enforced, although some of them were not drills. The strong aftershocks of the 1968 earthquake continued the following months, so disaster-preparedness became the order of the day all over Manila for some time.

A few years later, another big one hit with aftershocks of 4 to 5 on the Richter scale. Days later a strong aftershock hit one afternoon, and the family and household staff swiftly moved to safer ground, mainly outside the house. Our cook, who panicked and cried in terror, gripped me so tightly I could not budge and we were stuck in place together in the kitchen. When the shaking finally stopped, I got upset thinking that had we been in a volatile area, we could have been injured or worse.

Loma Prieta Earthquake

It wasn’t until decades later in San Francisco that I experienced another earthquake of Ruby Tower magnitude – the Loma Prieta earthquake. The night before, I took a night shot of my favorite building in San Francisco, the American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.), for my portfolio assignment at the Academy of Art. I was also scheduled to see a George Coates production there with a friend two days later. But the earthquake happened the next evening, and the theater was so damaged it had to close down for years. Later, I found out that the play’s largest overhead prop crashed, causing extensive damage to the front row of the theatre where our seats would have been. I winced at the thought that my friend and I could have been crushed in our seats had the earthquake happened the night we were there.

The Loma Prieta earthquake hit during commuter rush hour. I got off the elevator about 5:02 p.m. that day to meet my husband outside my building. We were both going to night school; I was taking art classes and he was in graduate courses in Golden Gate University. As I was waiting for him, the earth started to shake, people around me started to panic and shouted, “There’s an earthquake!”

The part of the Cypress freeway structure in Oakland, California, that stood on soft mud (dashed red line) collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, killing 42 people. Adjacent parts of the structure (solid red) that were built on firmer ground remained standing. Seismograms (upper right) show that the shaking was especially severe in the soft mud. (From the US Geological Survey website: www.pubs.USGS.GOV. Photo by Lloyd S. Cluff)

The part of the Cypress freeway structure in Oakland, California, that stood on soft mud (dashed red line) collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, killing 42 people. Adjacent parts of the structure (solid red) that were built on firmer ground remained standing. Seismograms (upper right) show that the shaking was especially severe in the soft mud. (From the US Geological Survey website: www.pubs.USGS.GOV. Photo by Lloyd S. Cluff)

I looked through the glass doors of my building where a fixture and some plaster fell down from the ceiling and thought I should stay outside. But then I heard the loud crashing of glass, which I thought were windows shattering from the high rises so I dashed through the falling plaster of my building. People crouched underneath the slab of material that was the building directory called me to squeeze underneath it with them. Our building was earthquake-engineered although my confidence in it would have dissipated had the shaking continued seconds more. As I faced the street, I saw through the glass doors a scene straight out of old Godzilla movies – people screaming and frantically running in all directions. I could not hear them, but I saw their arms flailing, eyes bulging wide in terror, mouths open as they screamed, and panic and fear clearly permeating the air. One of the people beside me suddenly cried, “That’s it! I’m going back to Wisconsin!”

Minutes later, I saw my husband and we trekked from the financial district to South of Market to find our bus that was misrouted due to a mob of people blocking the streets and panicky motorists driving in frenzy. There were damaged storefronts and looting was about to start. It took a while to reach Mission Street, which looked like a war zone after a bombing. We had to walk carefully over all sorts of debris like broken glass and metal parts until we found the 38 Geary bus and headed home.

I called my brother who was with my mom in San Jose. They were doing a fashion photo shoot for a friend and they happened to be on location in someone’s home with a swimming pool. My brother chuckled a bit as he described the water from the pool rising like a mini-tsunami. I was just glad they were safe. My other brother who lived in Stockton could not reach us by phone, so he attempted to drive to San Francisco but all bridges to the City were shut down for a few days. Only after the phone lines went back up three days later were we able to finally connect.

The Birth of NERT

We all heard stories that were variations of experiences of those who were here at the time. But what happened after that had a lasting effect on the city was the birth of the Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) training that the SF Fire Department started after this earthquake. Firemen were short staffed and people in the neighborhoods that were damaged started to help in clearing the debris and helping those stranded or injured. The citizens were responding to an immediate need, but not knowing proper responses to disaster scenarios also created some additional problems. This prompted the SFFD to develop disaster response training for San Francisco residents.

NERT also provides an annual citywide drill to its members, and citizens get a feel of how an organized city responds to emergencies, and volunteers get to see how a command post operates (live command posts are operating during the drill) and how to work with other citizens. The training sessions cover not just earthquakes but other disaster scenarios like fire, active shooters, flooding, etc. The program covers ways to survive should a disaster happen and rescue does not come for days.

Citizens round up to practice response exercises for different staged scenarios in NERT citywide drill. (Photo by Ramsey Ramos, Retired RN)

Citizens round up to practice response exercises for different staged scenarios in NERT citywide drill. (Photo by Ramsey Ramos, Retired RN)

Author and Ramsey Ramos, both NERT trained volunteers, stand in front of a live SFFD Command Post after a San Francisco citywide disaster preparedness drill. Ramos was part of City of Berkeley Public Health Dept. and has been in free clinics and rescue efforts including the 1991 Firestorm in Oakland, CA. (Photo courtesy of Ramsey Ramos, Retired RN)

Author and Ramsey Ramos, both NERT trained volunteers, stand in front of a live SFFD Command Post after a San Francisco citywide disaster preparedness drill. Ramos was part of City of Berkeley Public Health Dept. and has been in free clinics and rescue efforts including the 1991 Firestorm in Oakland, CA. (Photo courtesy of Ramsey Ramos, Retired RN)

Disaster Preparedness

The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported, “The odds are mounting once again that more destructive earthquakes will hit the Bay region within the next 30 years.

“There’s now a 72 percent probability — which means the odds are nearly 3 to 1 — that one or more quakes with a magnitude of 6.7 or greater will strike along one of the region’s faults in the San Andreas Fault system before 2043, the experts have calculated.”

The Loma Prieta earthquake on Oct. 17, 1989 was 6.9. It killed 63 people and caused 46 billion in widespread damage. What the future holds seems hard to fathom.

Nothing we do can prepare us for catastrophe. Preparedness to deal with emergency of all sorts is all we can count on to save lives and survive until rescue comes. Knowing how to respond in the event of disasters can make a difference and give us a chance to save lives, including our own. Or in the case of our cook, being unprepared can make you a safety hazard to others.

(For more information on NERT training programs, check out their website: http://sf-fire.org/about-sf-nert.)

VIDEOS

VIDEO OF NERT CITYWIDE DRILL – Take a look at what is involved in a citywide NERT drill (courtesy of San Francisco Fire Department)

Earthquake Preparedness Video from NERT


Manzel Delacruz

Manzel Delacruz

Manzel Delacruz is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.


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