October 17th, 2019 – 30 Years Later

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake, I am sharing my experience of that event as a Red Cross Disaster Volunteer. There are many things we can’t control in life, but with some preparation, we can have a positive effect on the experience we have. On the Disaster page (https://immigrantinfo.org/…), you can find links to multi-language information, apps and tools in many languages that can help you to consider your options in the event of the unexpected. 

I will always remember where I was at 5:04pm on October 17th, 1989. I had just walked into the Red Cross building on Hedding Street in San Jose. I was teaching an Earthquake Preparedness class that night and I wanted to get there before everyone left at 5:00pm, to make sure that all the equipment was there and working.

The slide projector was on a table right inside the door and I had just turned it on and off, when the ground started shaking. I am happy to say that years of training paid off and I immediately ducked under the table and held on. The shaking went on for a very long time and I imagined the slide projector being slowly shaken towards the edge the table. I decided that if it fell off, I would stay where I was and not try to save it.

When the shaking finally stopped, those who were in the building stepped out into the hallway and wordlessly looked at each other. We were all “disaster people” (the Health and Safety staff had left at exactly 5:00). We didn’t know where the epicenter was, but this one felt different. Since I was going to teach that night, I had “earthquake response” in the front of my brain, and I asked if we had any water stored. We did not. I suggested that someone find some containers and fill them, in case we would be there for a while. We couldn’t be sure if we would have water or plumbing. The lights had gone out but it wasn’t dark yet.

The phone started ringing and Rex Painter, the Director of Disaster Services, told me to handle the phone calls. The first call I answered was from Scotland. A man had been watching the World Series baseball game on TV and had seen the earthquake in San Francisco.

“My Aunt Madeline lives in San Francisco and I can’t get a hold of her. Can you send someone over to check on her and call me back?” I explained to him that San Jose was 45 miles from SF and I had no way to check on his aunt right now. I told him that later the SF Red Cross chapter might be able to help with personal inquiries, but not for a few days at least.

After I hung up, I realized the significance of the call. I’m not a baseball fan, but apparently people all over the world were, and they had all just witnessed a California earthquake in real time. It also meant that it was big enough to look impressive all the way to San Francisco. Was this was the big one that we always talked about?.

The second call was from someone who wanted to know where they could donate used clothing for the earthquake victims. This was reminiscent of my first experience as a Red Cross Disaster Volunteer after the Alviso Flood in 1982. I realized that all over the country people who had been watching the game on TV were already heading for their closets to prepare donations of used clothing. As the night wore on, I received numerous calls with the same question. Fortunately, a few years before, we had established a collaboration of local service providers (VOAD) and I had several referral numbers to offer these good hearted people who were frantic to help.

All calls were coming through the after-hours phone, and as soon as I put it down it was ringing again. It was a while before I was able to phone my mother and tell her that I would not be coming home any time soon. She was also a Red Cross volunteer and she asked if she should try to get to the chapter. We did not know the condition of the roads – traffic lights, overpasses, etc.- and it was not a good idea for her to try to drive from Mt. View. In any event, only Mass Care and Communications were activating immediately. The generator had kicked in and the lights had come back on. We needed to know the scope of the event and whether and where we should be opening shelters.

Rex and a couple of the guys brought in a small antenna TV set and we set it up in the disaster office. Amazingly, we got decent reception and we began to see what was happening around us. The initial focus of the media was on the drama unfolding in San Francisco and the East Bay – the disrupted World Series game, freeway collapses, the Marina District burning.

While everyone was focused on the TV, someone came in from outside and said, “Your generator’s on fire.”

Without looking up, Bill, a long time volunteer, said “It just smokes a lot when it kicks in.”

A couple of minutes later someone else came in and said, “Do you know that your generator’s on fire?”

All eyes still glued to the screen, someone reassured the helpful neighbor, “It just smokes when it starts up.”

Being the only female present, I was reluctant to make suggestions regarding machinery or equipment (not an area where people normally sought my input). I couldn’t leave the phone, but when the third person came in and told us about the generator, I asked, “Shouldn’t someone at least go out and look at the generator?”

No one wanted to leave the TV, but finally someone went out and returned almost immediately, saying “The generator’s on fire.”

Just then the lights went out again. Everyone ran to the back and put the fire out with the buckets of water that had just been filled.

Fortunately, the electricity was restored a few minutes later. We never lost phone service, our water continued to run and toilets continued to flush. This was very fortunate, because we were not prepared. The Red Cross had not done any of the things that we had been teaching people to do for years.

I continued to answer the phone, while Rex made calls to other chapters, the local government emergency services, etc. Someone else was calling volunteers for availability and a few people started reporting in. A couple of hours later I was able to reach my husband and make sure he was home. He had been at a seminar in San Jose and he had just gotten into a car on the third floor of a multi-story cement parking lot when the shaking started. He sat helplessly as the car vibrated towards the outside ledge. He considered jumping out, but other cars were also moving around and that didn’t feel either. Thankfully, the shaking stopped and the exit ramps were still intact, so he was able to drive home. It took him over 3 hours to get from San Jose to Fremont, because traffic lights were out and the entire Bay Area was a giant gridlock.

Throughout the night people arrived at the chapter to see if we needed help, or to ask where they could leave the in-kind donations they had in their cars. We had no capability to use untrained volunteers, and told everyone that the Red Cross couldn’t accept in-kind donations. I had taped a note on the front door with the addresses of several alternative organizations that were set up to deal with unsolicited, random stuff, but people were understandably reluctant to do any more driving. There were general traffic reports on the radio, but the only way for the average person to know if a specific road was jammed up, was to go there and possibly get stuck for an indeterminate amount of time.

We worked all night and at around 6:00am, I realized that I was very tired. Fresh volunteers were arriving and I was anxious to get home. My mother had told me that her house was OK, but I was anxious to see my husband and cat in Fremont. Rex told me to get some rest and come back in a few hours. I had just enough energy to get home and I was hoping it wouldn’t take too long. I was the first person to leave the building.

When I walked around back to my car, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I could barely see my car (or any cars) under the piles of stuff. The entire parking lot was full of bags and boxes of “donations” left by frustrated people who had been turned away at the door. The old Red Cross chapter was a strange building with no windows in most of the rooms, so we had been unaware of the overnight activity in the parking lot. (To be fair, after a while, people probably saw the pile and assumed that was where they were supposed to leave things.)

Incredulously, I looked into some of the bags to see what they had been so eager to give us. I saw a case of nail polish, a bag of Halloween costumes, a box of comic books and board games. There was a bag with open bottles of shampoo, conditioner, mouth wash, and other personal hygiene items, as though someone had hurriedly grabbed everything out of their bathroom and brought it down to share with the earthquake victims. Something was leaking. Peeking in other bags, I could see Leggos, used underwear, high heeled shoes, romance novels, silly putty.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or scream. I started to clear a path to get my car out of the parking lot, but realized that I was just putting more stuff in the path of other cars. I went back inside and got help to clear an exit route from the parking lot. Since we had no place to put all these things, several random boxes ended up being loaded into my car and I took them home, just to get it out of there. Everyone who wanted to leave would just have to take their share.

I was so busy over the next month, I forgot about the boxes sitting in my garage. I was between jobs, so I agreed to be the Site Manager at the Redwood Estates Fire Station in the Santa Cruz mountains. No one had a map of the ancient water system that had been pieced together over decades. It had shattered and it would be weeks before all the leaks could be located and fixed. Concerned with sanitation and fire hazard, the Red Cross continued feeding operations for weeks, out of the Redwood Estates Community Center.

Because it was necessary to have Red Cross oversight, I sat at the Redwood Estates for 10 hours every day. People were already bogged down in the forms and applications, or waiting for inspections from FEMA and insurance agents. They would come in to pick up the hot meals that were delivered twice a day by the Red Cross ERV’s (Emergency Relief Vehicles), and also to hang out and exchange information. It was hard on everyone, but especially on the teens. They needed a project.

One day as I was leaving home, I remembered the boxes of impulsive gifts that had been offered on that first night. I saw that some of the random boxes I had brought home contained what looked like the stock from a beauty supply store. There was nail polish of every color, lipstick, spray cans of neon hair color, mascara, and costume jewelry – just the kind of stuff that teenagers liked. I loaded them back into my car and took them to the summit. I called the chapter and asked for a case of the plastic bags that we used for shelter comfort kits to be delivered with lunch. That day, as teens and kids showed up, I invited them to take what they liked and help pack gift bags for the teens in Watsonville, who were much worse off than they were. By the end of the day, The boxes were full of gift bags and everyone in the area under 20 years old was much more colorful than they had been that morning.

This assignment lasted far longer than I anticipated, and the Red Cross had wrapped up much of their initial emergency response. Most people were in the recovery phase and trying to figure out how to get their needs met through the maze of disconnected state and federal disaster relief programs. This was before the days of personal cell phones and many people still did not have phone lines connected. They would be forced to go down the hill to a service center if they needed help and this was not an easy trip. I had one of the original cell phones, which was the size of a shoe box and weighed several pounds. But it was a line of communication, so I offered to help some people try to make calls. That was when I learned that nothing was working the way we had been told it would.

What looked on paper like a seamless set of programs, designed to fill in the gaps, was actually a patchwork of uncoordinated bureaucracies that had no knowledge or understanding of anything outside of their own programs. Although there were several avenues of resources, each had their own application process and they did not work together. None wanted duplicate payments of the others, so no one wanted to be the first to pay. They each wanted to know exactly what would be received from other grants, loans or insurance and everything depended on site visits by inspectors who were in very short supply.

I learned a lot in the weeks and months after October 17th, 1989. I learned that everyone involved in a disaster will be making life changing choices in unfamiliar territory, and nothing will ever be the same. I decided to learn how the relief system works and help people to understand their options and make the best choices in difficult situations. I am still a Red Cross Disaster Volunteer and I have been to major disasters all over the country. I have learned that a group of trained and dedicated people can begin to bring order out of chaos after much bigger events than the Loma Prieta Earthquake. But I have not learned how to convince a different group of dedicated people to find a way to contribute without delivering truckloads of amazingly random and mostly useless stuff to the scene of every disaster. To my knowledge, even after 30 years, no one has figured this out.