Zombie apocalypse? Space invaders? Okay, not very likely. I’m not a tin hatter, paranoid, or anything like that. I’m a 61 year old realist who sees what goes on around me and what can happen, so I want to be prepared to take care of myself, just in case the need arises. If I wait for something to happen, it’s going to be too late. I also know, from experience, there probably won’t be anyone coming in to help. In case of disaster, our survival will depend on what we have done to prepare and what help we can muster from the community.
We’re just a few days away from the anniversary of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Does anyone else remember that day? I sure do. I was just a few miles from the epicenter when it hit. I was a couple of hours into my shift at work, training someone on an epitaxial (epi) system. What’s that? It’s part of the process utilized in manufacturing silicon chip wafers and is comprised of a large bell jar that seals and fills with hydrogen and arsine.
We heard it coming before it actually hit. It sounded like we were in a tunnel with a freight train coming at us. A few seconds later the building started rocking and rolling. Fortunately, the building I was in was built for earthquake safety. One of the features was it was built on springs. Think of the springs on your car, just a lot larger. That’s why we rocked and rolled, rather than shaking apart. Just a few feet from me, acid sinks were splashing acid all over the floor. I could hear things crashing to the floor and people screaming.
The girl I was training tucked herself under a large heavy work table. That’s a good idea under normal circumstances, but not so great when you are in a wafer fab. There’s too many dangerous chemicals and equipment around you to stay inside the fab. As a member of the Emergency Response Team (ERT), as soon as I could stand without something to hold on to, I got the girl I was training and rounded up everyone else in my section and got them out to the parking lot. The rest of the ERT had done the same and we met up in the parking lot. We stayed behind and sent the majority of the rest of the employees home.
The first thing we did was attempt to get information, but the phones, including cellular service, weren’t working. In the security office, we had a direct line to our parent company in southern California. For a few days, the majority of our information came from what they heard on the news. Later, we were able to link up with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department via radio. There was no power, but our backup generator made it through the quake with no damage, so we went back into the fab and starting shutting down equipment, cleaning up spills, and draining acid sinks. Once we got the dangerous stuff cleaned up, the maintenance crew came in to do the rest of the clean up.
The ERT gathered and we made our way to downtown Santa Cruz, where there was extensive damage, to see what we could do to help. We spent hours helping to dig people out of the rubble, then went back to the fab. By that time, everyone was hungry and thirsty, but there weren’t any stores, restaurants, or fast food places open, and we had no potable water. I had my food and water storage, so I volunteered to feed everyone and bring in bottled water.
When I volunteered, I hadn’t considered what an undertaking getting home would be. My normally 10 minute drive from work to home took about 1 1/2 hours. The road was covered with rubble, people, abandoned cars, and other people in vehicles trying to just get out of the area.
When I got home, I found little structural damage, but every cupboard in my house was open and empty. Everything was on the floor and anything glass, ceramic, or the like, was broken into tiny pieces. It took me about another hour to clean up enough to get to the food, water, and a propane cook stove.
I had taken a radio with me and had kept in contact with the security office. Due to the difficulty in communication, ERT and security had decided to stay at the fab for the immediate future. There were 11 of us. I had them send one of the guys with a van and we loaded it up with food, water, both of my propane stoves, pots and pans, cooking utensils, paper plates, and plastic eating utensils. Being the fortunate one that actually got home, I filled a pack with clean clothes and tossed that in.
We spent the next several days alternating between trying to get the fab back up and going out into the community and helping where we could. I honestly can’t remember how long it was, exactly. Between the work, continuous aftershocks, stress, and lack of sleep, days just started running together. It was probably five days to a week before any of us took a break.
Even though the area was formally declared a disaster, there was no federal or state aid brought in. Most of the people in our area banded together and helped each other. The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department coordinated rescue and relief efforts and the local California Highway Patrol office coordinated efforts to get roads open and detours routed where they couldn’t. Like our team, these officers spent days on end working round the clock, as did the volunteers working under them.
Unlike what tends to happen in metropolitan areas, there was little crime in our area, in the aftermath of the Loma Prieta Earthquake. There was no looting or fighting over limited resources. The biggest offenses noted were people trying to profit from the disaster. I remember one incident where the Sheriff’s Department was informed of a man standing outside his small market selling pint bottles of water for $10.00 a piece. The man was taken to Watsonville to work on cleanup efforts and his stock of bottled water was confiscated and disbursed in the relief effort. There were only a few of these incidences and they were all handled in the same way. The offender was put to work and whatever they were attempting to sell at an exorbitant price was confiscated and disbursed. For the most part, store owners and managers of larger stores donated what they had to the community. Many of them coordinated their employees to help with the relief efforts and clean up.
Nine days later, I headed south a little ways to Watsonville, where my mom and several friends lived. My mom had been in San Jose when the quake hit and hadn’t made it home yet, so I wanted to check on her house and make sure my friends were all okay. I was shocked when I got to town. The northbound lanes of Highway 1, at Struve Slough Bridge, just north of town, had completely collapsed. I was in the southbound lanes and there was some visible damage, but they were open. From the center to the south end of town looked like a bomb had gone off. Many of the buildings were completely gone. There was a tent city set up in the town park. Houses were sitting askew.
The towns rebuilt and have grown and flourished since that time. Many of the people living in the area now can’t even imagine what we went through, but those of us who were there will never forget.
The following is the 2016 USGS forecast for earthquake damage. A new feature in this year’s forecast is it includes “potential ground-shaking hazards from both human-induced and natural earthquakes.”
Obviously, earthquakes aren’t the only disasters we need to worry about. There are numerous natural and man-made disasters which may fall upon us at any time and without warning. Are you prepared to take care of yourself when disaster strikes? If your answer is “no,” there’s no time like the present to get started.
This post is dedicated to the people of Santa Cruz County, at the time of the Loma Prieta Earthquake. I may not have known or have worked beside all of you, but all of you that came together to help your community are heroes in my eyes.