Monday, October 17, 2011

365 Jobs: Earthquake

October 17, 1989

Today's job was rewiring a house in Menlo Park.  It was grubby crawlspace work creeping on my belly, running Romex, lying on my back hammering staples into joists.  Thinking, always, I'd hate to be down here in an earthquake.

Now I'm swimming laps.  Oddly enough after a hard day's work, there is nothing I enjoy more than swimming myself to utter exhaustion. 

It's 5:04:49 p.m.  Suddenly I'm surging on a wave.  Like in the ocean.  I'm body-surfing.  What the hell? 

I'm swept to the side of the pool.  Waves are breaking over the edge.  Aluminum chairs are dancing and rattling all over the concrete deck.  That was the sound of the quake for me — clattering aluminum chairs.  With water splashing all over the concrete deck, there is a smell like a dusty road after a summer rain.

The pool is at a private club.  My son Will, age 7, comes running to me wearing a baseball glove.  He's been throwing balls on the tennis court.  He says, "What happened?"

"Earthquake," I say.  "You feel it?"

"I fell down."

"I was in the pool," I say.  "Come to think of it, a swimming pool may be just about the safest place you can be in an earthquake.  Nothing can fall on you."

"Can I get in?"

The water level is a few inches below where it was.  The power is out.  Otherwise, everything is normal.  No damage.  What can I say?  When you've lived in California for a long time, you get blas√© about earthquakes.  This one didn't seem any different, only bigger.

"Sure," I say.  "Jump in."

And so for the next half hour, I finish my laps while Will dives for pennies.  It would prove to be my last half hour of calm in the next few weeks.

Two boys also jump in the pool — with their clothes on.  Later their mother arrives.  “We fell in,” they say.  "The earthquake made us fall."

“I hope your shoes aren’t in there,” she says. 

“No, we took them off,” they say.  "Then we fell in."

After I shower and change, as I’m getting a cup of coffee, the bartender tells me that a section of the Nimitz Freeway collapsed.

Hmm.

Will and I drive to the Portola Valley Town Center, where my older son Jesse is just finishing soccer practice, which also continued as normal.  A soccer field — like Will on the tennis court and me in the pool — was a safe place to be.  The Town Center sits exactly, literally, right smack dab on top of the San Andreas Fault.  My 12-year-old son had been standing on it.  He said he fell down, then stayed perched on his knees watching waves move through the grass.

None of us have any idea how big the quake was.  But as I drive to pick up my daughter, on the radio we hear that a section of the Bay Bridge collapsed.

In my truck we follow the route of the San Andreas Fault along Portola Road, crossing back and forth over the fault line, then continue on Sand Hill Road to the gymnasium where my daughter has gymnastics.

She's waiting for us in the parking lot.  Everyone else has already been picked up.  Her class had to leave the building because ceiling tiles were falling down, so she’s been waiting outside.  "Where were you?" she asks.  She was bored.

We drive home.  Many radio stations are off he air.  KNBR is on.  They say the Bay Bridge and the Nimitz collapsed and fires are breaking out.

On the way home, a small barn has collapsed.

I stop in front of our house and hear voices and falling brick.  The La Honda Fire Brigade is dismantling our chimney, which was on the verge of collapse.  My wife is holding a flashlight for them.  Our power is out.


The house is a shambles.  Books, records, and cassette tapes all over the living room.  Food and glass all over the kitchen — molasses, peanut butter, vinegar, sugar, wineglasses, heirloom china — all over the floor.  And it’s now dark.  I find flashlights and light lanterns and loan a Coleman lantern to the neighbors.  Their house has a huge hole in the wall where the chimney collapsed.

I inspect our house.  Sheetrock came loose on the walls.  Papers and books flew around but the computer didn’t budge.  The bathroom medicine cabinets burst open.  The sink is full of pills and Band-aids.  The back porch detached itself from the house.

So we start cleaning up.  I bring in a garbage can, and we fill it up.  My daughter tends to her stuffed animals who are traumatized by the quake.  Will and Jesse clean up the living room.  My wife tackles the kitchen.  I reshelve the bathroom supplies.  We mop the kitchen floor several times, and it’s still sticky.  We replant some potted flowers that crashed.

The phone works, but you have to wait for a dial tone.  I call a friend across town whose husband is out of town.  "Are you all right?" I ask.

"I'm fine," she says.  "Don't worry about me."

Several days later I learn that this woman was standing in the rubble of her collapsed fireplace, an entire corner of her house suddenly missing, telling me she's fine and not to worry.  She thought I should help somebody who might really need it.  This attitude of altruism will show up again and again among practically everybody in the days to come.

We listen to the radio a bit, but its tone is basically one of panic — saying, “DON'T PANIC!!!” and giving a lot of foolish and contradictory advice such as, "Stay out of your house!" and then a minute later: "Don’t go outside!"  So we turn it off and deal with the real.

The kids — and the dog — sleep on the floor in our room.  We feel aftershocks all night.  We're together.  We'll get through it.


The next day, we start to rebuild.

As a contractor, the next few months will be the busiest period of my life.  At first I make emergency board-ups and bracings for free.  Then I charge my regular rates.  

The insurance inspector estimates the damage to my house at $11,000.  He warns me: "Watch out for profiteering contractors."

I tell him, "I'm a contractor."

The deductible on my homeowner's policy is $13,000.  I can fix it myself, except I'll get a mason for the brick chimney.

Of all the houses I repair after the quake, I never meet one homeowner who collects a penny from insurance.  I agree: let's beware of profiteering.



Note: I wrote an entire book about that earthquake with a no-nonsense title: QUAKE!  It's a
young adult novel based on true events about people in the town of Loma Prieta, which sits on Loma Prieta Mountain, the epicenter of the quake.  You can get any e-book format from this link to Smashwords, or you can get the epub format from iBooks or the Kindle format from Amazon.  You can get used copies of the print book through places like aLibris or Amazon, or you could get a brand new, signed copy from me.  Send an email if interested: joecot@coastside.net

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