Loma Prieta
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Loma Prieta: A Look Back

Historic photos of Santa Cruz County after the quake that would forever change the local landscape

It was early evening when the ground started to shake 30 years ago today.

Within 15 seconds, the facades of shops on Pacific Avenue had crumbled, Earth under fertile farmland in Watsonville had ruptured, and homes in remote reaches of the Santa Cruz Mountains has been destroyed.

The impact of the Oct. 17, 1989, Loma Prieta earthquake extended to almost every corner of Santa Cruz County. Even now, the legacy of the disaster lives on in local cities that were reimagined in a long and sometimes-contentious rebuilding process. 

[Click here for GT’s full coverage of the 30th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake.]

In many ways, the issues most important to the people who live here have come full circle, too. When the quake hit at the tail end of the ’80s, the Central Coast, in particular downtown Santa Cruz, were on edge about how to deal with familiar issues like unaffordable housing, unaddressed homelessness and drug use, and anxiety about public safety. 

But in photos that captured the devastation, the collective rescue efforts and unique cultural moments in time—like the tent city that sprung up off Pacific Avenue—there are also reminders of the scrappiness, the camaraderie and the beauty that have helped weather turmoil before.

DOWNTOWN IDENTITY CRISIS  Volunteers and rescue workers flocked to Pacific Garden Mall when the earthquake struck just after 5 p.m. on Oct. 17, 1989. The downtown shopping district expanded during the ’70s and ’80s, but by the time of the disaster, it had become a battleground for debate over issues like homelessness, crime and public safety. PHOTO: C.E. Meyer, U.S. Geological Survey

DOWNTOWN IDENTITY CRISIS Volunteers and rescue workers flocked to Pacific Garden Mall when the earthquake struck just after 5 p.m. on Oct. 17, 1989. The downtown shopping district expanded during the ’70s and ’80s, but by the time of the disaster, it had become a battleground for debate over issues like homelessness, crime and public safety. PHOTO: C.E. Meyer, U.S. Geological Survey

 

CROP BUSTING In agricultural areas of Santa Cruz County, strong shaking during the 7.1 earthquake caused cracks and “sand volcanoes” near fields that farmers were preparing for the fall planting season. PHOTO: S.D. Ellen, U.S. Geological Survey

CROP BUSTING In agricultural areas of Santa Cruz County, strong shaking during the 7.1 earthquake caused cracks and “sand volcanoes” near fields that farmers were preparing for the fall planting season. PHOTO: S.D. Ellen, U.S. Geological Survey

 

SHAKY FOUNDATION Anxiety about increasingly unaffordable housing also came to a head after the earthquake destroyed more than 11,000 homes across the Central Coast and Bay Area. Here, a house in the Santa Cruz mountains moved laterally off its cement foundation. PHOTO: J.K. Nakata, U.S. Geological Survey

SHAKY FOUNDATION Anxiety about increasingly unaffordable housing also came to a head after the earthquake destroyed more than 11,000 homes across the Central Coast and Bay Area. Here, a house in the Santa Cruz mountains moved laterally off its cement foundation. PHOTO: J.K. Nakata, U.S. Geological Survey

 

STILL SEARCHING Emergency responders and volunteers searched for victims at the collapsed Pacific Garden Mall. In the years after Loma Prieta, efforts to redevelop the downtown commercial district became a flashpoint for anxiety about who still had a place in post-counterculture Santa Cruz. PHOTO: C.E. Meyer, U.S. Geological Survey

STILL SEARCHING Emergency responders and volunteers searched for victims at the collapsed Pacific Garden Mall. In the years after Loma Prieta, efforts to redevelop the downtown commercial district became a flashpoint for anxiety about who still had a place in post-counterculture Santa Cruz. PHOTO: C.E. Meyer, U.S. Geological Survey

 

TALE OF TWO CITIES Santa Cruz and Watsonville took different paths to rebuilding after the earthquake. Many Santa Cruz shops set up in tents while a planning commission convened to map out a path forward. In Watsonville, a huge effort was undertaken to reopen the downtown Ford’s department store, pictured here, two years to the day after the earthquake. “Watsonville’s been searching for its identity of late,” local farm bureau President Jeff Brothers told the L.A. Times. “Ford’s is a harbinger of things to come. It’s done first class.” [H.G. Wilshire, U.S. Geological Survey]

TALE OF TWO CITIES Santa Cruz and Watsonville took different paths to rebuilding after the earthquake. Many Santa Cruz shops set up in tents while a planning commission convened to map out a path forward. In Watsonville, a huge effort was undertaken to reopen the downtown Ford’s department store, pictured here, two years to the day after the earthquake. “Watsonville’s been searching for its identity of late,” local farm bureau President Jeff Brothers told the L.A. Times. “Ford’s is a harbinger of things to come. It’s done first class.” [H.G. Wilshire, U.S. Geological Survey]

POPPING UP Pavilion tents, by Phoenix Pavilions, set up to house displaced Pacific Avenue businesses. ©Regents of the University of California. Courtesy Special Collections, University Library, University of California Santa Cruz. Vester Dick Collection.

POPPING UP Pavilion tents, by Phoenix Pavilions, set up to house displaced Pacific Avenue businesses. ©Regents of the University of California. Courtesy Special Collections, University Library, University of California Santa Cruz. Vester Dick Collection.

Managing Editor at |

Lauren Hepler is the managing editor of Good Times and a reporter covering cities, jobs and housing—plus the occasional sports or agriculture story required of all Ohio natives. She has contributed to the New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC and Slate. Lauren was previously on staff at the Silicon Valley Business Journal and is a graduate of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.

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