The big one

Remembering the natural disaster that hit close to home

Of all the types of natural disasters, tornadoes freak me out the most. Maybe it’s from watching The Wizard of Oz when I was a kid. I have no context for them otherwise, considering I was born in California and, with the exception of spending my kindergarten year in Littleton, Colo., have lived here my entire life. Still, the thought of being sucked up by a giant funnel terrifies me.

Floods and hurricanes weren’t a consideration growing up, and neither were volcanoes. That’s surprising considering I lived fairly close to Mount Diablo, in Danville. Today, the thought of a volcano erupting is unnerving, but thankfully, based on staff writer Ken Smith’s cover story on the centennial of Lassen Peak’s eruption, I shouldn’t lose too much sleep over the prospect, though scientists say another big North State eruption is bound to happen. Just when is anybody’s guess.

Earthquakes—the big ones, anyway—make me nervous, especially in light of what just happened in Nepal. Growing up, the Bay Area schools I attended regularly held earthquake drills. We’d duck for cover under our desks or in a doorway (for those standing). At the same time, at least back in the early ’80s, we’d also have nuclear war drills, which seem ridiculous now, considering how they basically were the same as the earthquake drills. And as far as I know, ducking under a desk won’t protect against nuclear fallout.

Though tremors seemed to happen with regularity during my youth, they hardly made me flinch until the Loma Prieta quake in 1989. That one—a 6.9 on the Richter scale—got my attention, the country’s attention. Sixty-three people died as a result, thousands of others were injured. My mom and I were driving through downtown Livermore when it suddenly felt like her Nissan Stanza wagon had run over something big, as though the tire had popped. Then the rolling began. We knew it was a quake when we saw light posts swaying as though they were about to buckle. Traffic stopped until the earth stood still. Our home was undamaged, though some photos and other items had fallen off walls and shelves.

Two days before the quake, my dad had taken me to see a World Series game—the “Battle of the Bay”—at the Oakland Coliseum. A few days before that, my mom and I had gone into the City, crossing the Bay Bridge. I thought about that a lot as the TV news replayed footage of a car falling from the upper deck of the expansive bridge to the bottom deck, killing the driver.

I remember being glued to the TV news and listening to Dan Rather, who’d parachuted into Oakland from CBS News in New York City, describe the scene at the collapsed Cypress Structure, inaccurately reporting that hundreds of people had died and describing the smell of burning flesh and other gruesome details. Rather’s reporting angered 14-year-old me. I didn’t watch that network for the rest of his career, but to this day, his ghoulish reporting is burned into my memory.