UCSC class captures earthquake survivors’ recollections in new audio archive
“Twenty minutes before the earthquake, the dog suddenly stopped and just went down, spread-eagle, on the ground, and would not budge … like, holding the earth.”
So spoke one longtime local to the students of “20 Years after Loma Prieta,” a five-week UCSC class that examined the infamous 1989 earthquake’s repercussions on the City of Santa Cruz. Sarah Yahm, a graduate student in the university’s social documentation program, created this class with the goal of creating an audio walking tour of downtown Santa Cruz that would reflect the experiences of locals during and after the quake. The results can be heard at santacruzafterthequake.wordpress.com.
Yahm, who led the class from July 28 to Aug. 27 of this year, explains that after speaking with what she calls “the official players”—people like Mardi Wormhoudt, who served as mayor at the time of the quake, and city councilmember and former Santa Cruz mayor Mike Rotkin—she and her students invited local earthquake survivors to an event near the Museum of Art & History, where the class recorded about 30 oral histories.
“Those were important, because they weren’t official—those were ordinary people: construction workers who were involved in reconstruction afterwards, people who had been homeless before and after, people who had helped build the tent pavilions and had been in real estate,” Yahm says.
The perky instructor says that part of her goal in starting this project was to enable people to understand the stories, memories and voices that Santa Cruz holds. “There’s a lot of academic writing that talks about ghosts and hauntings—not in a literal way, but in the sense that places are haunted by memories and stories,” she says. “It’s important to speak those out loud.”
One of the things Yahm learned while teaching this class was that although post-quake Santa Cruz did fall prey to the gentrification that typically follows such a disaster, the people in power worked incredibly hard to prevent it. “A lot of low-income housing was destroyed in the earthquake, and they made sure that the exact same amount of low-income housing units was rebuilt,” she says. “There was really an effort to make sure people didn’t get disenfranchised in the usual way.”
Yahm, who was in New York for 9/11, has studied natural disasters extensively. One of the common threads she’s found among these catastrophes is that during the couple of weeks that follows them, people who wouldn’t ordinarily connect tend to reach out to one another. “So the part [of teaching this class] that was most exciting for me was getting people’s thoughts right after the earthquake: the types of weird thoughts and experiences people had that were out of ordinary time,” she says. “People started talking to their neighbors; there were earthquake romances; people got to be friends with people they never talked to before.”
The instructor has high praise for her students, who numbered only eight. “They came in with no idea of what to expect, and I watched them suddenly get excited and realize that this was about the place where they live,” she says. “They started to see the place they lived differently.”
Excerpts From the Audio Tour:
“I managed to get out of there, rush out of the house, and I meet my naked 15-year-old sister in the front yard. She had been in the bathtub, and she said the water started to slosh, and she was so terrified that she got up and ran out of the house naked. And what tells you how terrified people were is no one noticed.”
“I had a wonderful time during the earthquake! That’s a funny thing to say, but if you manage to survive, and you don’t die, don’t get hurt and don’t starve to death … well, then, it’s a very exciting adventure.”
“Ironically, here was this building that people had said couldn’t stand, but when the wrecker’s ball first hit the Cooper House, it didn’t dislodge a single brick. It took two or three blows before they started to be able to bring anything down. It took, ultimately, about three days for them to bring the Cooper House down.”
“The new buildings were superior to the old buildings, obviously, and there was a lot of feeling of celebration, but it didn’t have the joy and the naturalness that was lost. It was more competitive.”
“It felt like Beirut after the bombing of the marine barracks there—it was just, like … devastation. Huge holes, like it had been bombed or something. It was just a reminder of not just what had happened and the experiences of the earthquake and those losses, but the economy that had turned sour because of it.”
“What I realized is that I could have lost my home, my belongings—everything could have blown up; it could have been destroyed in an instant, and all that I cared about was the home that I live in: my body, you know? That all that mattered was this home, and that I want to always feel like I can let go of the other luxuries as long as I’m able to take care of this shell, this house.”