Earthquake weather. Any old-time San Franciscan can define it. A sudden streak of sultry, hot weather. This happens with great regularity as the days get shorter in autumn, but its so foreign to our foggy genes that we assign it supernatural powers of prediction. This weather was also associated with the largest quake most of us can remember—the Loma Prieta quake that struck at 5:04 p.m. nearly a quarter century ago today.
I was a senior in high school that year and that October I was suffering from a lingering illness that a blood test finally revealed as mononucleosis, also known as “the kissing disease.” It’s quite possible that I picked it up from my boyfriend at the time—a sweet, good-looking, but perpetually stoned Individual. He might have harbored the bug and not recognized it in the mental fog that prevented him from remembering his own phone number (or one time, even my name). I was miserable with a fever and hugely swollen throat glands that made swallowing excruciatingly painful. I faced an extended absence from school and although I was relieved to lie at home feeling miserable, my uber-responsible brain registered that this was going to mean tons of make-up work.
In the late afternoon of Tuesday, October 17, 1989, I was on the phone with my friend B., catching up on what I’d missed at school—both academically and socially. Suddenly she shrieked “EARTHQUAKE!!!” and a second later I felt the strong seismic shaking as it traveled from the epicenter many miles to the south. I fled to the closest doorway and sank to the floor, bracing myself against the door jam and waiting in terror for the shaking to subside. My mother had been visiting with the elderly woman who lived upstairs and rushed down to check on me as soon as the tremors ceased. Amazingly there was no real damage in our home, and our thoughts turned to how our extended family had fared. They were only a mile away so we walked to check on them, since the phone lines were overwhelmed. Fortunately we didn’t have too navigate too many busy intersections clogged with panicked commuters trying to get home without the benefit of working streetlights. We were relieved to discover that my grandparents and aunts and the family home (which had survived the ’06 quake) had come through OK. After a brief visit, we made our way back in the growing twilight. Impromptu tailgate parties had erupted on the sidewalks as apartment dwellers, unable to access their parking garages, shared food and wine with their neighbors on this warm Indian summer evening. Things didn’t seem so bad—for now—although the possibility of aftershocks had us on edge.
Back at our apartment, we monitored news of the devastation on the radio. The collapse of the Cypress structure in Oakland and the destruction South of Market were horrible to comprehend but it was the news of the fire spreading in the Marina district that really worried us. Every San Franciscan knows that it was the fires following the 1906 quake that caused so much of the devastation. We went outside to investigate, walking a few blocks to Broadway and Webster, the crest of one of the hills separating Pacific Heights from Cow Hollow and the Marina. By this time it was nearly dark and the blaze was obvious from our vantage point. The fire seemed huge, the smell of smoke was intense, and we could feel waves of heat even though the fire was over a mile away. It was as if we were standing on the edge of a bonfire— one that could easily charge up the hill and consume everything in its path.
At some point we went back to our apartment and monitored the news in case we heard we had to evacuate. At some point the exhaustion from my illness and the adrenaline crash won over and I attempted sleep. I kept waking up with terrifying nightmares about fires. (To this day, if I am too warm when I’m sleeping, I have scary dreams of fire.) Finally morning arrived, and we learned that the firefighters’ heroic efforts, access to the bay’s waters, and the lack of winds had controlled the Marina fire.
We were very fortunate and had use of our utilities and phone fairly soon. We learned about the quake’s devastation through a variety of methods—radio, newspapers, television. Even my mother who typically scorned mainstream TV news reports was glued to the set. And there was another piece of news that had a direct effect on my life. My high school, St. Rose Academy, had sustained major structural damage and was closed for the remainder of the week. This was great news for me as I could recuperate from my debilitating illness without falling behind and scrambling to catch up. It turned out that the damage was so severe that we’d have to finish out the school term in “Rose Court,” a property across the street also owned by the diocese. They converted the space to a series of classrooms and set up portable trailers in the tennis courts we sometimes used during PE class. It was at least a week before we returned to a semblance of normal school day structure. By this time I was on the mend from the mono, though still dealing with serious fatigue.
Not long after this, the diocese decided not to invest in repairing the damage to the historic school: our class would be the last one to graduate from St. Rose. Students, families, and faculty were shocked and sent heartfelt appeals against the decision. But this bastion of all-female education would shut its doors after the class of 1990 graduated. The others would have to finish out their high school days at other schools.
My relationship with the brain cell-challenged boyfriend also ended shortly after the quake. (Coincidentally, his birthday is October 17 so it’s always lodged in my memory. Happy Birthday Shad, wherever you are!) A few weeks after the quake we spent some quality time walking around the ruins of the Marina district. He lived in the East Bay and hadn’t witnessed this kind of close-to-home devastation. We should have ended things right there—what perfect symbolism! Instead our limited partnership limped along for another month or so before he dumped me because my relationship demands were too taxing. (I guess it’s hard to remember to call someone when you can’t even remember your own phone number.) All for the best of course, but infuriating when you’ve spent time and money on BART expecting to go to party with your guy only to have to turn around and take public transit back home fighting back tears.
Decades later, I hope that I am more prepared for the next major quake that will inevitably hit the Bay Area. My mom and I took the very first Neighborhood Emergency Response Training course back in 1990 and this year I finally took the course again, refreshing my memory and dedication to disaster preparedness. I have my earthquake kit at home, my go-bag at work, and can spot an unreinforced masonry building at twenty paces. I am also better prepared than I was In 1989 to spot structurally unsound relationships and try to avoid them when I read the signs. (Although I’ve had the experience of thinking the foundation is solid and then having it suddenly give way.) With earthquakes and relationships, we never know when the next “Big One” might hit, so it’s best to be prepared.