How prepared are we for the next natural disaster?
The past month has been one of quakes: an 8.0 hit Samoa on Sept. 29, the same day that a 7.9 rocked Sumatra, and just last week there were three earthquakes of magnitudes greater than 7.1 in the South Pacific, resulting in tsunami warnings for 11 countries. And as further points on the globe rumble their way through the month, Santa Cruz is commemorating a more proximal disaster—the Loma Prieta Earthquake, which shook the Bay Area at 5:04 p.m. on Oct. 17, 1989. With international earthquakes all over the news and the 20th anniversary of a local quake at hand, Santa Cruz finds itself facing a tough question: Are we ready for the next one?
City council member Lynn Robinson was at home with her two toddlers when the ’89 earthquake hit. She remembers watching her son crawl away from falling furniture. “It felt very vulnerable to be in your own home with your babies, with furniture flying around,” she says. “As a native Californian, you get used to small earthquakes. You think, ‘oh it’s just another earthquake.’ But the minute this one happened, you knew it was different.”
When the worst was over, Robinson walked out into her Seabright neighborhood and was struck by the sense of togetherness and community that was already springing up. But despite Santa Cruz’s ability to band together and rise to the challenge, she believes the town would have fared better if people had been better prepared. “When we had that earthquake in ’89 it was one of the big wake-up calls for a lot of people in realizing how unprepared they were,” she says.
In the years since, Robinson hosted community workshops on disaster preparedness through Santa Cruz Neighbors, of which she is a founding member. Now a city councilwoman, she moderated the Disaster Preparedness Forum on Oct. 15 at The Museum of Art & History. She says the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta quake is the perfect time to remind people of the importance of being prepared, and also a good time to introduce the matter to people who were not in Santa Cruz 20 years ago, or perhaps weren’t born yet.
“There are a lot of people that have a vague memory of it or have heard about it but didn’t experience it—especially anyone who is younger than the earthquake,” she says. The event also targeted local business owners—an important group, says Robinson, because of how devastated downtown businesses were in 1989.
The Santa Cruz Police, Fire and Public Works departments, PG&E and American Red Cross of Santa Cruz County all made presentations at the forum. City department representatives, many of whom were on the frontlines during the ’89 earthquake, shared their updated plans for disaster response. But they stressed that when a disaster does strike, first response goes to priority areas (areas with the most hazardous damage), and that people should take responsibility for personal preparations—that’s where the American Red Cross came in.
The organization played a major role in the aftermath of the earthquake, as well as more recent local disasters like the 2008 and 2009 fires, by providing shelter, counseling, medical assistance and personal necessities, and they are ready to do so again. However, they strongly suggest all Santa Cruz residents take their own preparative measures.
“Make a kit. Make a Plan. Be informed,” says Patsy Hernandez, emergency services manager for American Red Cross SCC. “At a minimum have the basic supplies, consider the needs of all of your family members and pets. Know what to do in case you are separated during an emergency. Know what to do if you should have to evacuate. Learn what disasters or emergencies may occur in your area. Have emergency contact cards for all of your family members.”
Hernandez also recommends people partake in CPR and first aid certification courses.
“It is important to think [about] preparedness because of the fact that our population has grown significantly since ’89 but we neither have enough hospital beds or emergency personnel to deal with all of the aftermath that we will face,” she says.
As the city and local organizations attempt to prepare as many residents as possible, Santa Cruz can be assured that at least one aspect of the town is quantifiably more disaster-ready: its buildings.
Pre-earthquake, Santa Cruz was still home to a handful of buildings so old that they had survived the big quake of 1906. According to Jesse Nickell, vice president of development and construction for Barry Swenson Builder, the brick buildings received the most damage during the ’89 earthquake. Now, with mainly wood and steel structures, he says downtown buildings are much safer. “Let’s put it this way, I don’t think anybody died in the whole Bay Area in a building that was built after 1960,” he says. “Bricks are extremely dangerous in earthquakes.”
Nickell, who has worked for Barry Swenson for 24 years, was on his motorcycle in San Jose when Loma hit. He was able to snake his way through destroyed and congested highway lanes to his home on the Summit and spent the rest of the night helping neighbors turn off their gas lines. He would help re-build or renovate 15 earthquake-affected buildings in the downtown area—nine on Pacific Avenue—in the years to come.
Some of the company’s projects, like the St. George building (home of Bookshop Santa Cruz) had to be built from the ground up, while others, like the old Bank of America building now occupied by New Leaf Community Market, was still in decent shape. In the case of the Old County Bank building, now the location of Pacific Wave and NextSpace, Barry Swenson was able to use the two remaining walls—all that remained of the renaissance 1800s building—and keep them as a façade for the new structure they built in between.
Each of the 15 buildings, built over a 12-year span, is much better suited for an earthquake, says Nickell. Not only did the ’89 quake motivate sturdier building, but engineers have also learned increasing amounts about seismic activity in the two decades since, resulting in much more conservative building codes.
“It’s gotten much safer as far as design guidelines go,” says Nickell. “Buildings cost more to build but they are way more ready for earthquakes.”
Better scientific understanding of earthquakes also came in the Loma Prieta aftermath. UC Santa Cruz published a press release on Oct. 5 entitled ““Loma Prieta led to better assessments of earthquake hazards,” that details the technological improvements and scientific discoveries made at the university in the years since. Soon after she struck, UCSC acquired new seismology instruments from the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) and got to work applying data gathered during Loma—mainly the geometry of the fault zone and the affect of earthquakes on surface geology—to existing earthquake knowledge. The results were a “better understanding of ground motions during an earthquake and better mapping of seismic hazards,” says the release.
It goes on to say, “There were also some surprises in the damage patterns from Loma Prieta that ultimately led to a better understanding of how the propagation of seismic waves through different geological structures can focus energy in certain places.” This new data led to the development of “shake maps,” which the U.S. Geological Survey is now able to issue after a quake to show the intensity of ground shaking in specific areas.
According to the Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast, the most recent assessment of California’s earthquake probability, “there is greater than 99 percent probability of one or more magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquakes in California over the next 30 years. In the greater San Francisco Bay Area, the probability of a magnitude 6.7 or greater earthquake is 63 percent, or about 2 out of 3.”
The primary concern for the Bay Area is the Hayward fault, according to Thorne Lay, a seismologist and professor of earth and planetary sciences at UCSC. Lay says the Hayward fault is considered high-risk and would be especially damaging because of its location “right under a densely populated area.”
Between imminent earthquakes, a fire-prone location, and new threats like “tsunami warnings” to consider, Robinson says it is more than worth it to give preparations serious thought.
“The nature of where we live, there will be another disaster, it’s just a question of when,” says Robinson. “We are a very resilient town. We will come out of whatever disaster that might be, but the more people that are prepared for it, the better off we will be.”