Saturday, October 17, 2009

earthquake dreams

20 years ago today, I was a few months past turning 19, and had been living in Santa Cruz, California for just over a year. I had moved myself to Santa Cruz from the east coast because I wanted to live in California since I was a kid, and Santa Cruz sounded like just the place that would fulfill my fantasy of living next to the ocean, in year-round temperate climate, with the added bonus of being surrounded by cute surfer boys, cute boys being the biggest weakness in my life at that time. Like most childhood fantasies, the reality of my still-new California life was proving to be more difficult and not as exhilarating as I hoped. I moved without any relationship ties or connections to my new hometown, and many of my new relationships seemed tenuous, some were even troubled.  I was struggling with loneliness, depression, and post-adolescent angst at how complicated life was on my own. Also, I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, other than this vague hope to be an artist. And, I was totally broke, living in one of the most expensive places in California. I was not attending college yet, but working full-time at a popular flower shop one block off the Santa Cruz Mall, the downtown strip that was the center and hub of Santa Cruz, and was within walking distance from my teeny-tiny studio apartment where I lived alone.

When the Loma Prieta earthquake hit on October 17, 1989, I was working at the flower shop and happened to be on the phone with a friend when the building I was in jumped with the first roll of the earthquake, along with all the glass shelving inside the shop. It was like an explosion as glass shattered and the sound of the earth shifting and moving beneath my feet-- a sound I would become very familiar with over the next months—filled my ears. I screamed-- always my first fear response-- and dropped the phone. I rocketed out of the front door of the shop. I heard that one was supposed to stand in the safety of a doorway during a quake, but there was no way I was doing that. I am a former gymnast and I remember stretching my legs beneath the skirt I was wearing, leaping and bounding across the sidewalk to the parking lot across the street to put as much distance as possible between me and the building that I was in. I was certain it was about to collapse. It was like trying to run while drunk, the ground was shifting so intensely under my feet.

Once I cleared the street my next concern was to stay away from power poles that may be falling over. Also, I was alert to the ground just opening up and swallowing me whole. While I was working on keeping myself alive and unharmed, I was also taking in visuals that were making no sense to me. Like, the brick building that housed Ford's Department Store across the street from the flower shop was rolling and shaking as if it were made of jell-o. It collapsed in front of my eyes. The large picture window for the Spokesman bike shop next door to the flower shop also seemed to be made of liquid, I never knew glass could be so... flexible. The parking meter next to me was shaking and vibrating so hard I thought it may pop out of the cement of the sidewalk. For some reason, this parking meter scared the hell out of me, it seemed alive and dangerous.

All of this happened in the course of 15 seconds. You never really know how long a second is until you go through those seconds thinking you are about to die. Or, if not die, get really, really hurt. When the quake stopped, my initial reaction was to start screaming
and running around in a circle. Really, to me, that seemed like a reasonable reaction and totally appropriate for the moment. Thankfully, the people on the street around me remained utterly calm, which made me calm. I didn’t start screaming, but locked up the flower shop and walked the half-block to the corner of Pacific Avenue with my co-worker, at the very top of the Mall. I couldn’t see beyond a half block, there was so much dust in the air from disintegrating and damaged buildings. Down here, people were screaming, and injured. The sight of people digging through the collapsed Ford's store for humans buried in the rubble directly to my left was one of the grimmest sights I have ever witnessed, and made me instantly realize I had no business walking around, that I needed to go home immediately. That is, if I had a home anymore.

My home was marvelously intact, as was the rest of my life. This was suddenly a miracle, as I measured my survival against those who did not live through the quake, several of whom lost their lives on the Mall that day. There are many other things I will never be able to forget about that day. The neighbor who woke me up screaming bloody murder in the middle of the night because she was having a painful heart attack brought on by the stress and excitement of the quake. Trying to call an ambulance when the phone lines are not fully operational is the very definition of panic, and another deeply grim memory. The weirdness of the street lights not coming on when the sun went down. The heavy smell of gas in the air and the blocks of houses on fire. The party-like atmosphere around water trucks, and frankly, the liquor store.

What had the most impact on me was a complete shift in my perspective on life. We all know that the only thing that truly matters is having your health, family and friends, alive and safe. But to know that mantra, and then to have an experience which really makes you understand what it means are two different things, and up until that point I did not understand what the concept meant. This sudden knowledge freed me from many of my everyday worries and concerns as I experienced the intense rush of appreciating being alive and focused on being a support to others. The community of Santa Cruz bonded in the days after the quake, and I felt the love and concern of my friends and neighbors in a way that I never had before. The experience cemented many of my new relationships, including the one with my neighbor, JT, still one of my closest friends. JT and I became roomies for about 6 years after the quake because his house fell apart and we both hated our rent-gouging landlord. Probably the hardest thing for me about the Loma Prieta quake, aside from having to wrestle with my own terror of realizing what it meant to live in earthquake country, was the disappointment and feeling of loss as my community gradually went back to normal with the passing weeks and months.

I don't have a neat ending to this story. It's just a part of my life that I consider one of the most important things that ever happened to me, and I like to share the story with anyone who will listen. I kept a detailed diary during this time, that is where these images are from. You can click on them to read them more closely. The last thing I wrote was dated 12/7/89:

I'm having flashbacks constantly. Wherever I'm at, and the earth moves with aftershocks, I can see in my head the vases of flowers falling down, the glass cases crashing, a terrible noise with the earth roaring. However, my terror has subsided immensely, leaving only anticipation.


  1. What can I say? Wow. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I remember when a friend of mommy's called to let us know about the earthquake. We were glued to the news for hours until we finally reached you.

    You know when there are major earthquakes, hurricanes, or other catastrophes and the news people tell the people that aren't there NOT to call your loved ones to leave the few lines open for emergency personnel? Mommy and I gave them the finger as we kept hitting redial for about 2 hours. Busy. Busy. Busy. No service. Busy. Busy. Busy. No service. For 2 excruciating hours. 2 fucking hours.

    The relief I felt when the phone finally rang and hearing your voice on the other end is a kind of relief I had never experienced in my life. Nor have I experienced that kind of relief since. Having no idea where or how you were was awful given the images we were being fed via the news. It's a feeling I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy.

    If I remember correctly, you had a field day on Mommy's credit card that Christmas. We all had lots and lots of presents that year. Nothing like a shopping spree to celebrate being alive!

    I missed you so much during that time.


  3. Thanks for sharing this terrifying experience with us. Definitely a life changing event. BTW, You're writing is amazing.

  4. Oh, Whitney, that is such a terrifying experience and your account of it is wonderfully vivid. Thank you for the reminder of what we need to treasure in life. I read the comment by Brena and it brought me to tears.You are well-loved.Thank you for sharing.
    p.s. your mom and I have corresponded a little about Fierce Mother Protective Instinct and the careless things that people sometimes say or do.

  5. I moved to the Monterey Bay area 11 months after the Loma Prieta earthquake. Everyone has their memories --mostly terrified, dim, small. Yours is devastating and raw. And it made me think of the first time I ever walked the Pacific Gardens mall, with all the fenced-off devastation that took years and years to process.

    I don't know if a thank you is the appropriate response here, but I feel like you have given me a small, jagged puzzle piece.

  6. I just found your blog today and have been reading it all evening, you are my favourite potter, and a great writer to boot:)

    About a year and a half ago, 2 days before my 18th birthday, a very large earthquake hit Christchurch (where I live in New Zealand). It was my second day at Fine arts and an adrenaline filled, dream-like experience; I will never forget the rumble of the earthquake approaching. Afterwards I remember being terrified and running home from university across the city park with my veins full of adrenaline and water sloshing around in my shoes from the small volcanoes of liquifaction oozing out of the ground. I witnessing a huge fully-grown tree rip out of the ground in front of me. Not being able to contact your loved ones to see if they were ok was extremely distressing for everyone. My home was an old brick loft apartment in the city which used to be a rubber factory, it was my first flat and I loved it to bits. It had partially collapsed and we were definitely not allowed to go back and get our things. One of my flatmates had to crawl out as he had been inside when it happened. A lot of people were very unlucky, with a couple hundred people trapped under fallen buildings. In the end over 200 hundred people died and most of our historical buildings were destroyed, it was a very sad time for our small city. The biggest thing to come from the experience for me was my shift of perspective, being young and niave I had felt so invincible, the earthquake opened my eyes to the reality of life, it made me realise how little and insignificant I am in comparison with the mighty forces of the world. People really pulled together and helped each other though, we took in a young tourist from Japan, Azusa, her hostel had collapsed and she had no where to go. A small while after she went back to Japan, they had the earthquake/tsunami hit which was pretty unlucky (she was thankfully unharmed). A year and a half later, the city is still closed and only a few of the many buildings that need to be taken down have been demolished, and we are still having regular aftershocks (we get worried if there aren't any for a while as that usually means another big aftershock is coming). I don't get out of bed for anything under a 5 anymore, and all of my vases are blue-tacked down. When I finish my degree I will probably move to Melbourne. Do you still have dreams of earthquakes? I have the same dream at least once a week, I am up in a building with walls swaying like playing cards about to collapse and I have to survive the fall as best as possible. It seems like there are so many earthquakes and disasters at the moment, or maybe it's just that I'm more aware of them now.
    Anyway, I enjoy your blog and your creations, and thanks for sharing your experiences/thoughts, I find them really interesting. And sorry for the long post, I know you are a busy lady :)

    my blog is called nicanel if you are interested..

  7. Hi Nica,
    Thanks for sharing your story. I know the quake in Christchurch was very traumatic. I do not have direct friends, but friends of friends who suffered tremendous loss in that quake and I heard a lot of stories that gave me flashbacks. Surviving a big quake is a life altering experience, one that I am deeply grateful for. It gave me a perspective on life that I sometimes forget when I'm in the thick of things. But knowing that nothing in this life is a given, that anything can be taken away from you at any moment, including the ground beneath your feet, is a tremendous lesson in being humble for what you have. It sounds like we had a very similar experience-- even I had a few friends who had to crawl out of damaged buildings! And Santa Cruz took many years to rebuild. Even today, I see a few scars that are left and only someone who knew Santa Cruz as it was then could see the remains of the earthquake today, now 23 years later.

    One of the best parts of the quake was seeing how protective people are of one another in an emergency. The sense of love and support I felt from strangers in my community is something I have missed every single day since things went back to "normal."

    My earthquake dreams are now very rare, and when I do have them they are anxiety dreams, and I am very suddenly confronting death in the form of a collapsed ceiling or building. They trouble me only every once in a while.

    I do remember also becoming hyper aware of earthquakes all over the world and being like "Oh my god, the world is being destroyed in earthquakes!" But now I realize that earthquakes are a natural part of the earth's rhythm, we just become more tuned into them when we have gone through a BIG ONE. Most are harmless and do not affect the lives of humans.

    I wish you the best in fully recovering and incorporating the lessons of your earthquake!