Many of us here at 5:04 p.m. Oct. 17, 1989, can still remember 20 years later how we immediately knew we were having an earthquake that might continue shaking itself into the next Big One — the one the Bay Area had tried not to worry about since 1906.
But then the 6.9-magnitude temblor stopped as abruptly as it began. And the Loma Prieta earthquake left 63 people dead, 3,757 injured, some 12,000 homeless and as much as $12 billion damage to buildings, roads and bridges throughout the Bay Area.
Power was lost in some areas for as long as three days; the brick facade of an old SoMa warehouse fell on and killed five people; and Marina homes crumpled apart in sandy landfill. Cracks shut a pair of The City’s elevated freeways; two sections of the Bay Bridge parted, plunging a luckless driver to his death; and the Cypress Structure near the Oakland approach to the bridge collapsed and killed 42 people.
Worldwide sympathy flowed in from ex-visitors with fond memories of The City. Most San Franciscans and Peninsula residents first felt a surge of relief as they realized the damage hadn’t been even more catastrophic. Yet our queasy post-traumatic shock persisted for days, as we listened over and over to quake aftermath news.
Now, on the 20th anniversary of Loma Prieta, it is startling to see how the 1989 earthquake changed San Francisco and the Bay Area in so many ways — and largely for the better, although improved safety preparations for the next San Andreas Fault tectonic shift still have a long way to go.
On the plus side, more of San Francisco was taken back for livable, human-scale spaces by demolishing the Embarcadero Freeway and Central Freeway. The City’s bayfront has become a sculpture-laden promenade centered on a revitalized Ferry Building, and extending from Fisherman’s Wharf to an enlivened Mission Bay.
Significant progress on seismic upgrading has been made — or is underway — on major public structures. Work has even been done towards strengthening The City’s 75,000 vulnerable “soft-story” buildings. The Bay Area’s wildly incompatible emergency communications systems are finally being merged into a true regional broadcast network.
But how embarrassing is it that Bay Bridge seismic renovation is still years away from completion — even as its costs never stop growing. By comparison, Los Angeles refused distractions and reopened its badly damaged freeway sectors in less than a year. Still, our local authorities deserve credit for getting traffic back onto a patched-up Bay Bridge in a matter of weeks.
Taking stock at this 20th anniversary makes it clear that the Loma Prieta earthquake’s societal aftershocks were as sweeping as they were unpredictable — and more are still en route. But we all should get more serious about readying ourselves, our homes and the Bay Area for the next truly Big One we all know is coming.