October 18th, 2009

Ratatouille: Alert Thinking

Twenty Years Ago

Since everyone else is posting memories of the Loma Prieta quake, thought I'd contribute mine.

It was my freshman year in high school and I'd just got home. At the time, I lived near the intersection of 280 and Foothill in the south bay. My parents weren't home yet. I expected that my mom would be there but she was probably running a little late. I heated up a stack of microwave pancakes for a snack. (Hey, I was a teenager. But I do remember that detail for some reason.)

I was standing in the kitchen when the shaking began. I'd lived in California all of my life, up to that point, so I had earthquake safety reflexes drilled into me. I was into the doorway between the kitchen and the family room within a second.

The cupboards began rattling and as the slower, rolling waves of the quake reached us the whole house sounded like it was inside a thunderstorm. Everything rumbled and swayed.

From my vantage point in the doorway, I could look out across the patio to the pool. My most vivid memory of the whole earthquake is looking out and seeing the water sloshing from side to side. It looked just like when you were a kid and would use your legs to slide back and forth in the tub, driving the water in rhythmic swells.

The rolling motion was so long that the water sloshed up out of the pool, the wave crest clearing the tiled rim by nearly a foot. It rolled over the patio, out into the garden paths and over the low flower beds in an expanding sweep.

Inside, there was a shattering crash. I looked around and, though I saw cupboard doors flapping in the kitchen I couldn't see anything that had fallen out. When the shaking died down, I headed across the kitchen, eying the floor carefully for signs of fallen glass. But it turned out to be in the entryway.

Our china cabinet had toppled over. Now my dad (and I, subsequently) is conscientious about earthquake safety. All of the big pieces of furniture in the house were secured to eye bolts in the wall studs. Except that we were painting the entryway where the china cabinet stood. And for this one week, it was untied from its harness. Seriously. Nature has a cruel sense of humor sometimes.

After dashing through the house looking for any other damage, I headed out to the side yard. I grabbed the emergency gas key from the nail where it hung beside the meter and main line into the house. It was a straight bar with a slot and I spun the valve on the gas line. (Yes, I wasn't kidding about the family preparedness... Maybe this is why, at several jobs now, I've been a company safety warden. I like knowing safety procedures.)

Not knowing what else to do, I went to a couple of the neighbors that I knew to see if they were okay. There was no serious damage though many broken possessions.

My mom got back before too long, taking into account the magnitude of the quake. I'd been through enough earthquakes even at that age that I could guess how big this one was. I knew that roads might've been damaged or impassable.

Mom was on the 280 freeway heading home when it hit. She thought at first that it was a flat tire until she noticed that everyone on the freeway was suddenly driving like they had flat tires. Traffic slowed and she pulled over.

She noticed one guy ahead of her also pulling over except that he continued along the shoulder until he came to a stop directly under an overpass. Under a big, heavy, concrete overpass -- that's where he chose to stop. Her guess is that he remembered something about doorframes being safe and, well, overpasses are kinda like freeway doorframes right?