Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Nimitz Freeway, 1989

Last Saturday marked the twentieth anniversary of the Loma Prieto Earthquake - AKA the Quake of ’89, AKA the World Series Earthquake - that struck the San Francisco area on October 17, 1989.

This was no rattle-the-dishes temblor. It was a major quake, 7.0 on the Richter scale, that resulted in the deaths of 63 people. Many of those people were killed in Oakland when a 1.25 mile long section of the Nimitz Freeway’s Cypress Street Viaduct collapsed, the upper part of the double-decker roadway pancaking down onto the lower deck. It was a scenario right out of a Disaster-Porn movie, the ultimate Bad Commuting Day for 42 hapless drivers.

We get the occasional earthquake here in Georgia, believe it or not, the most recent being just last Saturday - a 2.3 magnitude baby centered just 45 miles southeast of Atlanta. But here, about the only clue there’s a quake going on is the rattling of our glass shower doors in their frame. There are no dramatic scenes of the earth splitting open and swallowing up whole neighborhoods, no houses collapsing or roads with weird kinks.

San Francisco didn’t get off quite that easily, alas.

The thousands of Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants fans who congregated at Candlestick Park to see the third game of the World Series - the quake occurred as the teams were warming up and was broadcast live on national TV - may have been disappointed that the game was postponed... but nobody at the stadium was hurt.

I didn’t find out about the disaster until the next morning, owing to the fact that I was in Switzerland drinking massive quantities of wine and snarfing up plateloads of Lake Geneva perch with various Bidnis Associates. And it was a fortnight later, as I flew into San Francisco enroute home from China - the penultimate leg of a grueling, three-week around-the-world trip - that I could see with my own eyes the darkened hulk of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, shut down due to the collapse of one of the sections of the upper deck. It was more than just a little scary.

Listen: Everyone blathers about “The Big One,” the giant quake that will split western California away from the rest of the continental U.S. and sent it sliding out across the Pacific (or to the bottom thereof) - but the next really humongous quake may very well be one that strikes the Southeast. There’s this little thing called the New Madrid Seismic Zone, and it has a demonstrated ability to pooch out temblors measuring 8.0 magnitude and higher... which would screw us all up to a fare-thee-well. I’m trying to picture a tsunami on Lake Lanier.

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