Community: Earthquake country

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Aftermath of L’Aquila, Italy quake. Photo: The Guardian, UK

On the way to work this morning I was listening to the news updates on the earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy. Hundreds perished, thousands injured and unestimable euros in damage. Who knows how long it will take to recover? They’re calling it the “big one” for Italy.

I remember the “big one” for California—well, the most recent big one—the 7.0 quake that hit San Francisco, October 17, 1989. It caused the shocking collapse of a section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the eventual obliteration of the section of I-280 that ran along the Embarcadero waterfront. It’s considered one of San Francisco’s greatest disasters.

I was in San Francisco that day. In fact, I was a freshman in college at University of San Francisco and was a roommate with our Associate Editor Ana; it’s how we met. The earthquake occurred three days after her birthday. Even after twenty years, I still think that the 17th, the day of the quake, is her birthday. I’m always three days late in congratulating her.

This morning we reminisced about that big day and the recovery days that followed.

Ana: I was walking across campus at the time and the ground started shaking and I honestly didn’t know what it was because I hadn’t eaten that day, so I thought it might have just been me. And then I turned around and some dude standing behind me looked really freaked out. I knew then that it was a quake. I didn’t know how serious it was until we got in front of the television.

Me: I was in that big ballroom up at Lone Mountain and the building started to shake. All of sudden this giant 6-foot wide bubble started to move across the room, under the wooden floors. The floor rippled like waves of water. It was strong enough to lift a grand piano several feet off the floor. And then those huge chandeliers started to drop from the ceiling. That’s when the panic started, everyone rushing for a doorway and trying to squeeze in.

Ana: My mom was freaked out, envisioning me being trapped downtown. We were stuck in San Francisco. There was no way to get out. It became an island out there.

Me: I remember waiting in those long lines to use the phone to call home. Phone lines were clogged. Our parents were going crazy.

Ana: When I was watching the news last night I think the one thing that strikes me when I see a quake in Italy or the one in China last year, is that they say those regions aren’t built for earthquakes—that they weren’t prepared. I feel lucky to live in California. We live in earthquake-country, we know it and we’re pretty prepared for it. I feel relatively safe here.

Considering that San Francisco quake took place at rush hour, I’m surprised that not more people had died. We were really lucky.

Me: What about afterwards? Did you feel any residual anxiety?

Ana: I don’t remember carrying a lot of anxiety with me. It’s just one of those things that you deal with when you live here.

Me: I remember Erin [our good friend and fellow student] was in Union Square when it happened. She was right by either Neiman’s or Saks Fifth Avenue and those huge plate glass windows shattered and came falling down on the sidewalks. I remember that it took a long time for her to feel comfortable near those kinds of windows again. It was pretty terrifying. A lot of people were hurt down there.

Ana: Earlier that day Sophia and I were sitting outside and it was a really nice day and she remarked how still it was, there was absolutely no wind, and they say that’s a sign for earthquakes. She actually commented on it.

Me: I remember going down to the Marina district that night; it was one of the hardest hit areas of the city. It was really dark because there was no electricity and a little too quiet. It was eerie. It was strange to think that something that lasted only 45 seconds could desert an entire neighborhood within hours.

Ana: Part of the worst is watching the news—you don’t know what you’re going to see. When you’re going through it, it’s short-lived and you learn to deal with it. But when you turn on the TV and watch the news and see them replay it over and over again, the feelings get worse.

Me: I do remember that people pulled together though. It’s something that binds you together, like we were fellow survivors.

Our hearts and prayers go out to those battling to survive the L’Aquila quake. May peace be with you.

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