Loma Prieta Earthquake

A Personal And Historical Look At The Earthquake That Shook California in 1989.
June 27, 2007

Not since 1906 had Northern California experienced such devastation caused by an earthquake. Almost everybody who has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for the past twenty years remembers where he or she was when the “Big One” occurred on October 17, 1989 at 5:04 PM Pacific Daylight Time. Measured at 7.1 on the Richter scale, the quake lasted approximately 15 seconds and was followed by several aftershocks. The Loma Prieta Earthquake was named after a mountain peak, located in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which happened to be the quake’s epicenter. The two Major League Baseball teams from the Bay Area, the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s, had been competing against each other in the 1989 World Series and were warming up for the third game just as the earthquake struck.


My family and I did not live too far from the epicenter of the Loma Prieta Earthquake. I can’t remember what else happened on that unseasonably warm autumn day, but that afternoon, my mom, sister, and I were just about ready to go to the grocery store. My dad had not come home from work yet. I had waited outside for my mom and sister, sitting on the cold asphalt driveway, staring straight ahead at the tall trees in front of our house. As I felt a jolt in the ground, I saw the top of one of the trees break off. I got up and ran back in the house and found my sister and mom sitting by the front door.
“What’s going on?!” I asked.
“It’s an earthquake Adam! Here, get on the floor with me and your sister!” shouted my mom.
I sat down next to them and we all huddled up for safety until it was over. I don’t think my sister remembers it because she was only two years old. I was six, but I knew the earthquake all too well. When it had ended a half an hour later, we all pulled ourselves together. I had never been more scared in my entire life. I am ten times more frightened of natural disasters (earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornados, etc.), than I am of premeditated ones (i.e. terrorism).

The worst thing to happen to our house was the collapse of the chimney, which was common among many homes affected by Loma Prieta. We all slept in the living room that night with emergency supplies by our side. The rest of the house was not so badly damaged. California has had earthquakes after 1989, but the San Francisco Bay Area has not had another one with that great of an impact since then.


The San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge had succumbed to minor damage when a 50-foot section of the upper deck on the east side had collapsed onto the deck below. The earthquake had caused the Oakland side of the bridge to shift to the east about eighteen centimeters, causing the bolts of one section to shear off, sending the small part of the roadbed to fall like a trapdoor. Two automobile drivers fell through the gap, but landed safely into the lower deck. One motorist had attempted to drive off the edge of the gap, but was killed after crashing onto the lower deck. The fallen section was removed and replaced and the Bay Bridge was reopened exactly one month later.

Several homes and apartment buildings in the San Francisco Marina District had been severely damaged by Loma Prieta. The structures were built on loose sandy soil, permeated with water, and as a result of liquefaction, a process whereby shaking motion and the weight of the buildings causes water to be pumped out of the soil, caused the buildings to sink into the ground.

In Santa Cruz, damage was just as bad in the downtown area when several buildings collapsed, including the Pacific Garden Mall and two people were killed when stores they were in collapsed on them. The worst hit buildings were those made of brick and masonry, including several historic structures. In the downtown business area, businesses were relocated in tents in a nearby park for months until virtually all of Downtown Santa Cruz was rebuilt.

A small stretch of the Cypress Street Viaduct, a raised two tier, multi-lane freeway, part of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland (Interstate 880), was destroyed by Loma Prieta when the upper-level had collapsed on the lower-level and the supports on the sides broke and split outward, resulting in 42 deaths. The viaduct was demolished soon after the earthquake and was not rebuilt until July 1997.

In the end, the Loma Prieta Earthquake left 62 people dead, 3,757 injured, and more than 12,000 homeless. It had also caused an estimated $6 billion in damages, taking almost a decade to completely repair. On October 26, 1989, President George H.W. Bush signed the $3.45 billion earthquake relief package to aide California.
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