October 17, 1989, San Francisco
The day had gone well. I saw four patients for psychotherapy, and two therapists for consultation. The patients each moved forward with the quiet exhilaration of emotional healing. The therapists were talented, sharing their work, open to learning. With the 50-minute psychotherapy hour, I finished at 4:50, and was on the road at 4:58. The drive home would take 17 minutes.
At 5:04PM, I was suddenly neck-deep in every driver’s worst nightmare. With no warning, the steering felt “loose.” Within moments, the car began to jerk, and became entirely unresponsive to steering. I veered and jumped — left, then right, then dangerously close to the sidewalk. Braking and accelerating resulted in nothing. I wrenched the wheel as the car jolted onto the wrong side of the road. Fifteen seconds later, again with no warning, everything switched back to normal.
Hands shaking, I drove forward with extreme care, trying to control my breathing. Peering out the window, adrenaline still churning, I saw people acting strangely. Individuals and groups clustered on the sidewalk, some clutching each other. People looked stunned, confused, frightened. In my own state of self-centered shock, I wondered if they were reacting to my driving, if someone had called the police, reported me as drunk. I hoped so. I would have welcomed help from an officer of the law.
I arrived home in one piece, and was incredibly annoyed when the automatic garage door didn’t work – of all times. I parked on the street, opened the front door, and stopped short. Everything on the shelves was scattered on the floor. My first thought was that a burglar had broken in. But all of our drawers were closed, every closet unopened, every cabinet intact. Only the open shelves were empty.
Unnerved and wanting to hear my husband’s voice, I picked up our landline — no dial tone, no static, nothing. I turned on the lights, but the electricity was dead…and somehow this finally got through to me: I lived in San Francisco, infamous for one specific natural disaster. I had just come through the Loma Prieta Earthquake.
When you’re driving and an earthquake hits, it doesn’t feel like the earth is shaking; it feels like you’ve lost control of the vehicle. Outside of the car, electricity shorts out, streetlights fail, signals turn dark, telephone lines go dead. Often, the first instinct is to run into the street; in fact, this is dangerous. Aftershocks can bring down roof tiles and shingles; live wires can throw off dangerous sparks; cars, as I had just learned, can turn haywire.
But there’s a powerful need to connect in the face of danger, and that’s what we all did. Our contractor neighbor visited every home on our block for a quick safety inspection. A nurse went door to door, making sure nobody was injured. I hurried outside to check on the elderly couple next door, and ran smack into them, rushing to check on me.
Just as I began to worry about my husband, he arrived home with a co-worker who took the bus to work. Traffic was impossible and public transit system was out of commission. Two other friends who lived across the Bay Bridge in Berkeley arrived on our doorstep an hour later; all bridges were closed and they were stranded in the city. We feasted on cheese, tuna, crackers, melting ice cream, and excellent California wine. We set up the co-worker on a couch, and the couple on a futon. Following the same instinct, we all went to bed fully clothed, with the doors to our rooms open – ready to jump up as a team to face whatever lay ahead. As it turned out, we all slept through the night, uninterrupted.
Now that I live in North Carolina, I don’t deal with earthquakes. Instead, we have torrential rainstorms with flash floods and zig-zag lightning. Tornados often touch down on a nearby lake, and threaten to wreak havoc. During my first tornado warning, I was terrified. Now, I take it in stride. Each place has its version of earthquakes.
When we first moved to The South from The Bay Area, people asked about earthquakes. They acted as though I had survived a headline news event, which I guess was true, because people were hurt, killed, lost homes. As San Francisco sorted itself out in the aftermath, many had varying degrees of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But since my experience was mild — 15 nasty seconds in a car — I moved forward easily.
Looking back, I remember those details without anxiety. But I do carry that bone-deep instinct to band together as a community, that sense of commitment and loyalty to those around me, who form my immediate world. Every year on October 17, I think back to my wonderful friends and neighbors in San Francisco, and to our impromptu slumber party. I remember the Loma Prieta Earthquake and I quietly, privately renew my vow to my community.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a novelist, blogger and mother of three grown children. Amy wrote her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, in reaction to seeing gay students bullied in high school. Her second novel, Tightwire, follows a rookie psych intern through her first year of training. Amy blogs on a variety of subjects including parenting, LGBTQ+, gender equality and a Rolling Stones concert. She also collaborates with educators who include her books in their curriculum.
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