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October 12, 1999
MAJOR QUAKES AREN'T PERSONAL UNLESS THEY HAPPEN TO YOU
By ROGER ANDERSON Scripps Howard News Service
One day - Oct. 17, 1989, to be exact - I was writing a freelance story in a second-floor apartment in Oakland, Calif., I shared with my girlfriend and our two cats when the building began to shake.
The building had been constructed the year World War I began. It was within sight of Lake Merritt, a manmade body of water surrounded by a park, restaurants, public facilities, a children's amusement center - in a word, landfill.
Did I mention that the building began to shake? Because it did indeed begin to shake. Then it continued shaking. And the shaking got stronger and stronger. The old building swayed back and forth. The two cats shot through the air like a couple of furry cannonballs, in wide-eyed panic.
I knew it was an earthquake, a big one - perhaps THE big one - and I knew I was going to die.
Even though I knew I was going to die, once the shaking lessened a bit, I grabbed my shoes and went down the stairway and out onto the street. The cats had disappeared into some hidey-hole, not to be reappearing for hours. I sat on the curb and put my shoes on. People in buildings all over the neighborhood were also spilling onto the street. Most of them already had their shoes on. Car alarms were going off.
Maybe I wasn't going to die after all - maybe. My only other thought was about my girlfriend, who was at work in a magazine office on the other side of the Berkeley Hills, at the other end of a long tunnel that, for all I knew, she had been driving through when the quake hit.
There was an aftershock. There was another aftershock.
I found a pay phone and tried to call my girlfriend's office but couldn't get through. By the phone booth a woman in a car had her radio on. The Bay Bridge is down!' she shrieked.
"They're saying the Bay Bridge is down!"
The Bay Bridge was down? The idea was impossible to absorb. The Bay Bridge, connecting Oakland and Berkeley with San Francisco, was something you took for granted the way you took your spinal column for granted. It was a great big old thing, an awe-inspiring Depression-era engineering wonder spanning the vast and choppy waters of San Francisco Bay. I usually had occasion to drive across it several times in the course of a week.
So the entire bridge had collapsed into the bay? How many hundreds of motorists had been killed?
Before long my girlfriend materialized out of nowhere. She had been at work when the quake hit and then drove home - through the tunnel. No problem. Here she was.
Once your loved one has shown up intact after such a catastrophe, everything else is anticlimax. But in this case the anticlimax went on for days and almost finished me off.
First, the aftershocks. There were lots of them - in fact, there were, according to reports, literally thousands of them every day. A few of them were strong enough to feel, and a few of those were strong enough to give you a heart attack.
Fortunately, power in our neighborhood was back on before dark that first night. Unfortunately, that meant we didn't miss any of the local and network news coverage.
The network coverage was amusing at first - just imagine, Dan and Tom and Peter dodging falling bricks just down the street! But it wasn't amusing to friends and family who lived elsewhere, because the network cameras showed only the devastation. You couldn't tell from the news shows that way over 90 percent of the area looked as though nothing had happened.
The Bay Bridge? When newscasters had, in the first flush of the disaster, reported that it was "down," what they really meant was that one fairly small section of the span's upper deck had collapsed. One motorist was dead.
On the other hand, the bridge was closed until further notice. That meant that if you needed to commute from Oakland to San Francisco - which I did, for my part-time job on the news desk at the San Francisco Examiner - you had to drive north to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, across the bay to Marin County, down 101 through Marin and over the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. It was bumper to bumper the whole way, and it took hours. And it took more hours to come home.
Especially in light of recent earthquakes in places like Turkey, what happened 10 years ago in Northern California seems like small potatoes. What you don't understand until you go through it, though, is how traumatized you can be by a natural disaster, even one that leaves you and yours comparatively unscathed.
How traumatized was I? Traumatized enough that when an Examiner reporter told me a psychic who predicted the first quake had sent him a postcard predicting a second one, I made arrangements to be out of the area that day and made my girlfriend come with me. I seriously considered bringing the cats.
And I was traumatized enough to establish contacts in Portland, Ore., in hopes that a job would open up there.
A few months later, a job did open up for my girlfriend in Seattle, except that by now she was my wife. I was all in favor of the move. I was a bit let down, however, after we arrived in the Emerald City and learned that the Puget Sound region is where the edges of innumerable tectonic plates meet and grind dangerously against each other. Sooner or later, the Big One would hit and it would all be over.
So now we live In Washington, D.C. Probably terrorists will bomb the place into oblivion before a big quake hits.
Roger Anderson is arts and entertainment editor at Scripps Howard News
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