Saturday, October 17, 2009

Loma Prieta remembered


When the earthquake struck on October 17 1989, I was working in a storefront office in the brick building pictured above on the "Yes on S" campaign, seeking to save the city's domestic partnership legislation from an anti-gay referendum. Prospects for that night's phonebank looked grim; the World Series game between the Oakland As and the San Francisco Giants was about to start at Candlestick Park. Locals were tuned in to baseball that night, not politics.

I was on the phone with my partner who was in an office half a mile away as the trembler hit. She said "uh oh" and I knew somehow she meant "earthquake". I had a nano-second to hang up and think I should get under my desk before feeling the floor shake. The earthquake (or rather the structures it was moving) made a low rumbling sound. I got under the desk while the shaking was still underway and before a few of the suspended ceiling tiles jumped their frames and dropped into the wide open office. After a mere 15 seconds, the shaking stopped. And the electricity went off and the phones went dead.

We knew the quake was serious, though naturally had no idea how serious. As it happened someone had brought a battery-powered TV to the campaign office, presumably to catch some of the baseball on the sly. We took the TV outside and set it up on a card table, thinking like organizers -- we might attract a crowd to make friends of. Broadcast news was as disrupted as everything else, so I don't remember seeing the collapsed Bay Bridge or the fallen freeway in Oakland at that time. But naturally we wanted any news we could find.

Meanwhile, what we saw there on the outer reaches of mid-Market Street (at Franklin) was surreal: with the electricity out, the Municipal Railway cars that ran on Market Street couldn't move. Traffic lights were gone and drivers weren't yet attempting to get around. But thousands of downtown office workers streamed toward us on foot in the middle of the street. Some places further downtown plate glass and cornices had come crashing down. People in high rise buildings had experienced the swaying much longer and more vigorously than those of us on the ground. The walkers' faces were white -- they seemed stunned and mostly took no notice of our TV. Many of the women were wearing athletic shoes and carrying bags with their office shoes -- I guess that was their daily practice.

It was about 3 days before relatively normal movement and electricity was restored in the city. The Chronicle managed to get out an abbreviated issue the next morning. The oh-so-local World Series resumed at the end of the week. The Bay Bridge is still in the process of being strengthened twenty years later -- indicative of shameful local political incapacity.

Meanwhile, those of us working to save our domestic partnership law had to figure out what you do when your campaign is interrupted by a catastrophic local event that leaves the electorate and campaign workers in a state of shock. Most people wanted either to help with earthquake relief (more people than emergency agencies could really use) or hunker down. The last thing they wanted was to engage in democratic combat in the electoral mode.

The Yes on S campaign suspended operations to collect cash for the Red Cross. (I've told that funny story here.) But San Francisco was not so damaged that the election would be postponed. We had to get our folks active again if we were to have any chance. Over the next week I managed to meet with all 50 precinct captains I was working with, evaluating what they had done and what they needed to do. The process felt as if we starting over -- and in some sense, we were. The civic shock of the earthquake was that great.

My experience of San Francisco's "almost Big One" makes me think that if we'd had national leadership that was worth a damn after 9/11, the country could have benefited and healed some from a national effort to "restart." Instead we were just urged to pretend the government had everything under control and we should go shopping. We needed to come together and consider intelligently what it meant that our country has enemies who experience the U.S. as so vile that they are ready to die to hurt us randomly. In the language of 2001, our grief need not have been a cry for war. The rush to churches in the wake of 9/11 was people's effort to find a better restart. We, Iraqis, and Afghans are still suffering for our failure to achieve a constructive restart after that national shock.

Oh -- and San Francisco voted narrowly against our domestic partnership law in that autumn of 1989. This city was not yet ready for another year to definitively adopt it and begin the trek toward today's marriage efforts. That 1989 electoral loss too may well have been an aftershock of the earthquake. People become conservative and negative after great shocks. But they also can recover.

1 comment:

Darlene said...

My step-granddaughter's now ex-husband worked in S. F. and was on his way home when the quake struck. My step-granddaughter became hysterical and her mother had to drive from another town to be with her until her husband arrived home safely.

It was, and is, a frightening reminder of just how fragile our earth is.

I love California, but fear for my children who all live near the San Andreas fault or other faults.

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