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Uncertain Ground

 One thing people always ask -- when they find out I live in San Francisco -- is “Aren’t you afraid of earthquakes?”  Of course I am.  But I was here for the 7.2 in 1989, which has given me endless enjoyment in retrospect.  How many people can tell stories about living through natural disasters?

First, the power went off.  Everything dropped suddenly, a couple of inches straight down.  I wondered if a big truck had hit the grocery store.  Then things started to bounce.  “It’s an earthquake,” my husband Mason explained.  The floor began to jump like a funhouse.  I looked for something, anything, to get under.  Of course, there was nothing; this was a grocery store, after all.  All I could think was “Get out, get out.”  Mason hugged me hard against his chest.  We staggered around together, barely able to keep our feet.

We watched the wine bottles shelved where we were standing slap together with every jolt.  Bottles exploded, firing water and glass into the aisle.  The quake seemed to take a lot longer than 15 seconds as we waited to see if the ceiling would come down.  When it finally quit, we abandoned our shopping cart, walked through the spilled wine, and drove home.

It’s a guaranteed conversational opener to ask people out here where they were when the ’89 quake struck.  I’ve heard Christine’s tale of watching tapes cascade to the floor in Tower Records, John flying out of the shower and into the street clutching his underwear, Tammy in a packed BART train on its elevated track watching more of the ground appear outside the windows each time the car rocked.  My roommate Jeff saw the record album crates in our living room jump far enough apart that he could see between them before he grabbed his shoes and fled the house.  Our friend Gina had just gotten a shot of novocaine in preparation for a filling when the power went out.  Her boyfriend Ray, coming home on the highway from Silicon Valley, thought something was wrong with his car, then discovered that setting the parking brake didn’t prevent the car from moving sideways.

All in all, the ’89 quake was a big adventure.  We met neighbors for the first time as everyone on the block gathered around a mini-TV plugged into an automobile cigarette lighter.  It was amusing to watch the newscasters stumble around without scripts.  With stoplights out all over town, ordinary people stepped forward to direct traffic.

The City at night, on the edge of the ocean, was ever so dark without power.  Behind our house, Buena Vista Park filled with candles as people waited out the aftershocks out-of-doors.  Haight Street was one big, happy party.

I was disappointed to get up in the morning and find the power back on.  The adventure was over too quickly.  People went back into their homes and the sense of community evaporated.  Just another day in the big city.

See, the deal is, I grew up in tornado country.  I remember crouching in the interior hall of my elementary school, shielding the back of my neck with my hands, waiting for the windows to explode inward and sever my jugular vein with flying glass.

More than 20 years after leaving Michigan, I still have tornado nightmares.  Usually I’m standing in my parents’ garage, watching the sky go gray-green.  In my waking life, I’ve never seen an actual funnel cloud.  In my dreams, I always see two or three at a time.  They jump the creek, spook the cows, sail away, switch directions, attack again.

I hate tornadoes.  I hate the sound of the warning siren.  I hate hiding in the basement in the middle of the night, waiting to hear the all-clear on the radio.  Twice in the last two years, towns around my parents’ have been chewed up by tornadoes.  But they won’t consider moving to a safer area of the country.  Everybody picks the risks they’re willing to live with.


My fear of earthquakes is under control.  I rarely have earthquake dreams.  I console myself with statistics: There are 10-20 small quakes under San Francisco every day.  No one even feels them.  Prior to the Colombian quake, earthquakes killed less than 2 million people in the last century -- and the earth shook for less than an hour in all.  What are the odds of two big ones while I’m here?

Move to safer ground?  No way.  I love San Francisco.  Anyway, we all live in disaster zones.  If it’s not earthquakes in California, it’s volcanoes in Washington, killer ice and snow in the north, tornadoes in the center, hurricanes in the east.  The Mississippi floods.  You do what you can to prepare and then put it out of your mind.

If the earthquake comes again, I look forward to the sense of community I felt after the last one.  Maybe my new neighbors will come out of their homes.


 This is my point of view.  It is not meant to belittle the experience of people in Japan and the hardships they continue to face.  The '89 quake was a blip compared to what they have undergone, but our local media treated it as if it were the end of the world.  Having a sense of humor about that is the only thing that's allowed me to continue to stay in San Francisco.