In Northern California, a balmy day might inspire mention of "earthquake weather." The reference is to October 17, 1989 and the warm, still weather that set the stage for the Loma Prieta earthquake. The San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics were preparing to play Game Three of Baseball's World Series when the earthquake struck at 5:04 p.m. Registering 7.1 on the Richter scale, it was the most powerful earthquake to hit the area since 1906. A span of the Bay Bridge collapsed. The upper section of the 880 Freeway at the Cypress Street exit (pictured here) crumbled. And the subsequent coverage provided by television and the press on hand for the baseball game made the earthquake much more a media event than a geological occurrence.
Headlines like these from the Washington Post exemplified the press' handling of the event:
VIOLENT EARTHQUAKE STRIKES NORTHERN CALIFORNIA, KILLING DOZENS, CAUSING WIDESPREAD DAMAGE
Sections of Bridge, Highway Collapse in Rush Hour
EVEN BIGGER QUAKE PREDICTED ALONG SAN ANDREAS FAULT
The words most often used to describe the immediate aftermath of the earthquake included "panic, fear, destruction," and "chaos."
The live coverage of the event portrayed the most "photogenic" damage - the Bay Bridge, the Cypress Freeway, and a section of San Francisco's Marina District where broken gas mains sparked a block-wide fire. Their focus on those areas most devastated rekindled visions of the 1906 earthquake, which is represented in textbooks by images of the entire city of San Francisco on fire.
California has long been linked to earthquakes, especially by Hollywood. The 1974 movie, Earthquake, portrayed the destruction of Los Angeles. Released in 1978, Superman: The Movie hinged on a plot to trigger an earthquake along the San Andreas Fault that would cause California to "fall into the ocean." In keeping with this characterization, the media painted a portrait of widespread disaster, and renewed speculative conversations over when 'the big one" that would spell California's demise would hit.
Geologists regard the Loma Prieta earthquake as a moderate quake. Its epicenter was located 70 miles from San Francisco in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the shaking lasted less than 20 seconds. Sixty-three people, died (42 on the Cypress Freeway), 3,757 reported injuries, and the earthquake caused an estimated $6-10 billion in property damages. The damage in downtown Santa Cruz was so extensive that entire blocks were razed and rebuilt. And all Bay Area communities scrambled to assess the structural integrity of structures, bridges, and overpasses in the days following the earthquake as aftershocks rattled through the area.
The Loma Prieta earthquake proved to be a galvanizing event for Northern California communities. There are countless stories of individuals involved in dangerous rescue operations, assisting people who lost homes, and giving generously of their time and money to help the community recover. The destruction caused by the earthquake gave people the opportunity to reshape their communities. The best example of this is found in West Oakland, where the original construction of the I-880 Cypress Freeway had bisected a lower income, predominantly African-American section of the city, in effect destroying the local community. After the earthquake, neighborhoods banded together to oppose Cal-Trans' proposal to rebuild the 880 Freeway on the same site. After years of lobbying against one of the state's most powerful agencies, West Oakland residents won their appeals against the reconstruction. The ruling against Cal-Trans placed a higher value on a community than a major roadway, which is a testimony to the passion and persistence of the West Oakland residents.
For California, the Loma Prieta earthquake acted as a catalyst for a statewide examination of roads, bridges, overpasses, and public infrastructure with regard to earthquake preparedness. As subsequent earthquakes, such as Southern California's 1994 Northridge earthquake, have struck, the strong public reaction after the Loma Prieta earthquake has provided invaluable lessons for both engineers and communities.
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