Earthquake Readiness: How the San Franciso 1989 Quake Shook AwarenessWatch the video
TEXT ON SCREEN: October 17, 1989
ARCHIVAL (NBC 10-17-89): KATIE COURIC: Good evening. I’m Katherine Couric. A strong earthquake rocked the San Francisco Bay Area just moments ago.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, NIGHTLY NEWS, 10-17-89): TOM BROKAW: 6.9 is what we’re hearing.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, EVENING NEWS, 10-18-89): DAN RATHER: Big enough to bring cities in Northern California to their knees.
NARRATION: In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake sent a deadly shockwave across Northern California. And from the earthquake’s opening jolt—which came during a live broadcast of the World Series— to coverage of the grisly aftermath—Loma Prieta became a national television event.
ART AGNOS (SAN FRANCISCO MAYOR, 1988-1992): This was the most watched earthquake and probably one of the most watched natural disasters in American history.
NARRATION: The earthquake left 63 people dead, caused as much as $10 billion in damage, and touched off a national conversation about seismic readiness — and not just for California.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, NIGHTLY NEWS, 10-19-89): TOM BROKAW: Of course California is not the only state subject to earthquakes. Take a look at this map of the United States and the earthquake zones.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 10-19-89): ROBERT BAZEL: The San Francisco quake demonstrates, that you can never prepare enough.
NARRATION: But a quarter century later, how much preparing really happened after the panic died down?
JAY WILSON (HAZARD MITIGATION SPECIALIST): This was a wakeup call. But I think a lot of people have gone back to sleep.
ARCHIVAL (ABC SPORTS, WORLD SERIES, 10-17-89): AL MICHAELS (SPORTS ANNOUNCER): And home for the Giants, one of the most spectacular vistas on this continent…
ART AGNOS: It was a fabulous October day. The weather was spectacular. The whole city was excited.
ARCHIVAL (ABC SPORTS, WORLD SERIES, 10-17-89): AL MICHAELS (SPORTS ANNOUNCER): The battle of the Bay continues….
NARRATION: Just after 5 p.m. on October 17, 1989, baseball fans across the country tuned in to see the San Francisco Giants face the Oakland A’s in a broadcast that would soon go down in television history.
[Archival footage of ABC Sports footage of pre-game banter, then shouts as the screen shakes, crackles and goes dark.]
ART AGNOS: We were just driving into the parking lot at Candlestick Park when we felt the earthquake and it was a state of confusion.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 10-17-89):
JOSE CONSECO (BASEBALL PLAYER): All of a sudden it hit. I didn’t know where I was for five seconds. I still feel like throwing up right now.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 10-17-89): ANNOUNCER: The game will be postponed. We ask that you leave in an orderly fashion.
ART AGNOS: Police officers came up to me and said ‘Mr. Mayor, we got to take you to the command post because the Bay Bridge has fallen in.’ There on television were scenes from helicopters showing the upper deck had fallen onto the lower deck.
NARRATION: The shaking registered a magnitude 6.9, the biggest quake the Bay Area had seen since the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 10-18-89): POLICE OFFICER: Shut off the gas! Shut off electricity! Store water!
NARRATION: Coverage of the Bay Bridge collapse, fires in San Francisco’s Marina District and a collapsed viaduct along Oakland’s 880 Freeway dominated newscasts for days. Out of the 63 people killed in the quake, 42 died after the elevated section of roadway fell down.
ARCHIVAL (10-18-89): POLICE OFFICER (INSIDE DAMAGED BUILDING): I don’t know how the hell we’re gonna get ‘em out. We’ve got one woman who’s bleeding…
NARRATION: The earthquake took its name from Loma Prieta mountain, about 60 miles south of San Francisco, where scientists pinpointed the event’s epicenter. Nearby towns in Santa Cruz County saw 16,000 homes and businesses damaged or destroyed in the quake – far more than in San Francisco.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 10-18-89): BOB MACNAMARA: Most of the people who died, died in older buildings.
NARRATION: As the full extent of the damage became clear, coverage soon turned to how to fortify structures against future quakes.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 10-18-89): KEN KASHIWAHARA: Officials can only hope to reinforce the ones still standing and rebuild the ones destroyed with stricter standards, before another major earthquake hits.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 10-18-89): DAN RATHER: I mean this question keeps coming up every earthquake. RICHARD EISNER (BAY AREA PREPAREDNESS PROJECT): We have a huge inventory of these old buildings that we’re trying to strengthen. It’s costly. It’s very political and there are very large social and economic costs that we have to bear.
NARRATION: In California the message largely got through. Authorities there have made efforts to boost seismic readiness after nearly every major shaker since 1933. But Loma Prieta in 1989 – followed five years later by a 6.7 quake near the Northridge section of Los Angeles – sent the state’s preparations into high gear.
RICHARD EISNER (BAY AREA REGIONAL EARTHQUAKE PREPAREDNESS PROJECT, 1984-1994): People’s thinking was startled by the amount of damage. It was a slap up side the head.
NARRATION: In the last 25 years, California taxpayers spent billions retrofitting mass transit and regional water systems, public buildings and schools. In one of the largest undertakings of its kind, transit authorities retrofitted or replaced more than 2,000 bridges statewide, from obscure highway overpasses to the new Oakland Bay Bridge. Despite delays and construction missteps the bridge now stands as one of the busiest tolls crossings in America.
STEVE HEMINGER (EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, METROPOLITAN TRANSPORTATION COMMISSION): It’s unprecedented. The cost of the bridge behind my shoulder is a little over $6 billion. The cost of retrofitting or replacing all the toll bridges in our region for earthquake safety was about $9 billion. If you want to throw in those 2,000 highway bridges, you’re probably throwing in another couple billion on top of that.
RICHARD MCCARTHY (EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CALIFORNIA SEISMIC SAFETY COMMISSION): California has made the largest financial commitment to earthquake risk reduction in the country.
NARRATION: Yet coverage of Loma Prieta and later quakes sounded an alarm for fault zones far beyond California.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, EVENING NEWS, 10-23-89): DAN RATHER: It’s easy to forget that other parts of this country face an earthquake threat.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, NIGHTLY NEWS, 10-19-89): TOM BROKAW: Only the upper Midwest seems to be free of them.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 1-18-95): USGS EXPERT: Oregon and Washington in particular have the potential for even larger earthquakes than does California.
NARRATION: Oregon formed its own statewide seismic safety commission specifically in response to the 1989 quake. One of its members, Jay Wilson, felt the shock personally. He was a college student in San Francisco when Loma Prieta struck.
JAY WILSON: The earthquake really framed things and gave me a sense of purpose. It became my career path.
NARRATION: He’s since found work as a hazard mitigation specialist in Portland, where he preaches the gospel of preparedness full time.
JAY WILSON: It’s evangelical, in a way. It’s a righteous truth when you’re talking about earthquake safety to people, you know?
NARRATION: Since the mid 1980s, scientists in the Pacific Northwest have uncovered evidence that every three centuries or so, the region gets rocked by earthquakes registering between magnitude 8 and 9.
CHRIS GOLDFINGER (GEOLOGIST, OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY): The last one occurred more than 300 years ago, so we’re already skating on thin ice. And when we dug into it a little further, we found out that the actual repeat time is more like 240 years for any of these earthquakes. So we’re out past the edge of the thin ice.
NARRATION: Goldfinger’s research teams look for evidence of past earthquakes in underwater sediments, which can reveal patterns of tectonic shifts. The record shows more than 40 great earthquakes have struck the region in the last 10,000 years.
CHRIS GOLDFINGER: It’s not like we’re predicting some far-flung thing like getting hit by an asteroid. There’s a 100 percent chance of an earthquake. It’s just a matter of what the time is. Is it going to be in the next five minutes, is it going to be 500 years from now?
NARRATION: His studies forecast a 40 percent chance that Oregon will see an offshore quake of magnitude 8 or greater in the next 50 years. In the worst case scenario, it could be a magnitude 9 mega event.
After a similar quake struck Japan in 2011, Oregon’s Seismic Safety Commission published a report on how well the state would handle such an earthquake if no further preparations were made. The findings were grim. As many as 10,000 people dead in the tsunami. Some essential services knocked out for years. Economic impacts felt for a generation.
IAN MADIN (CHIEF SCIENTIST, OREGON DEPT. OF GEOLOGY AND MINERAL INDUSTRIES): We have a computer program that estimated $30 billion worth of damage. I think that’s crazy low.
NARRATION: In recent years, Oregon disaster readiness experts have begun advocating for greater tsunami preparation and better building codes. But in a region where earthquake readiness wasn’t even mentioned in most statewide codes until the 1970s, thousands of unreinforced buildings, bridges and utilities remain dangerously vulnerable.
IAN MADIN: The bridge we’re looking at here was built in 1931. It is highly likely to be at least unusable after a big earthquake, and possibly a pile of wreckage in the river. Basically what we’re saying is 80 percent of everything in Oregon needs to be fixed. So the real key is to get those processes in place, and then hope we have 50 years.
NARRATION: With such a hazard on the horizon, why aren’t fault zones like Oregon doing more? What is it about an earthquake that makes it so hard to convince people to prepare?
DENNIS MILETI (SOCIOLOGIST, PROFESSOR EMERITUS, UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO, BOULDER): You finally asked the million-dollar question.
NARRATION: Dennis Mileti is a sociologist who has spent his career studying disaster readiness.
DENNIS MILETI: Human beings are wired to believe that they live on a safe planet. We’re wired to ignore high consequence, low probability events. The truth is, as scientists know, it’s not a safe planet.
NARRATION: Earthquakes may be inevitable over the centuries, but the probability one will happen tomorrow is low. And Mileti says the difference between the level of preparation in California and Oregon is pretty easy to explain.
DENNIS MILETI: The number one motivator to get the public in general to prepare for high consequence, low probability events is to go through one. The public in Oregon is no different than the public anywhere. They don’t perceive there’s a tsunami risk or that there’s an earthquake risk. Why? They haven’t personally experienced it.
NARRATION: And even when they have, Mileti says the effect can be fleeting.
DENNIS MILETI: It lasts about two years and then the public interest goes back to where it was before the event occurred.
NARRATION: Just last month tremors in Los Angeles put seismic readiness back in the news.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, NIGHTLY NEWS, 3-29-14): LESTER HOLT: Unsettling rumbles this afternoon shattering nerves in Southern California.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 3-29-14): ANCHOR: It wasn’t the big one, but it was big enough.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 3-29-14): ANCHOR: Authorities say it should be a warning for people to be prepared.
NARRATION: Even in America’s most earthquake ready state, large gaps in preparedness remain.
DENNIS MILETI: Preparedness in California is as good as it gets, which doesn’t mean it’s adequate.
NARRATION: With no statewide rules about retrofitting seismically vulnerable homes, hundreds of thousands of California buildings can still topple in major quakes.
IAN MADIN: I don’t think anybody’s ready enough.
NARRATION: A quarter century after the warning of 1989, the worry is shared by many who are paid to watch fault lines and wait for them to slip.
JAY WILSON: It doesn’t take much for me to get really anxious if I think about it too much. When it does happen, people are going to look up and go, ‘Who in the hell was working on this?’