California Rebuilds After Earthquake
A year after one of the worst earthquakes in US history, Californians are putting their lives and cities back together, though effects of the quake linger. First of two articles.
SAN FRANCISCO — IN his Tudor apartment in the fashionable Marina district, Louis Pare has bolted his bookshelves to the wall, taken most of his mirrors down, and stowed 40 gallons of water in a safe place. All are precautions in case the earth shifts again. ``Even a year later there are still effects on my family,'' says the concrete contractor of last year's earthquake. ``When our washing machine bounces and shakes the floor, everyone jumps.''
A year after one of the worst earthquakes in American history, the effects of the temblor can still be felt in both subtle and conspicuous ways.
For the vast majority of people in the region, life returned to normal not long after the 7.1 magnitude temblor struck. The wood-slat seats of the city's cable cars are once again full. It's hard to reserve a dining room at the upscale Blue Fox restaurant. Oakland is going through its annual preening - how many times has it been now? - over the Athletics going to the World Series.
But in the areas hardest hit by the quake, dramatic signs of how long it can take to regain economic and social equilibrium after such a disaster are evident:
The historic heart of Santa Cruz, which was devastated in the quake, remains largely in ruins. Chain-link fences cordon off several blocks, and holes exist where buildings once stood.
The shells of others sit eerily empty, as town officials go through the laborious process of planning and securing funds, businesses anguish over whether they want to rebuild, and preservationists and planners squabble over whether to repair or tear down buildings.
Plywood covers many storefronts in downtown Watsonville, an agricultural community close to the epicenter of the quake. While some reconstruction is under way, it will probably be several years before the main commercial district, ailing even before the earth moved, revives.
Merchants survive as best as they can in the interim. Norm Bucaloy, who has run a shoe-repair shop for 18 years, has seen business drop 50 percent since the quake. Still, ``we will live again,'' he says, ``I think.''
A cheer as prodigious as a Canseco home run went up when Oakland's only big downtown department store, the Emporium, reopened in August after repairs. Other key commercial buildings, though, remain empty and webbed with cracks.
Perhaps the ultimate symbol of the damage that endures in Oakland is City Hall. The imposing neoclassic building has been closed since the temblor, its cupola sheathed in scaffolding and its 1,000 workers scattered at desks around the city.
``Life is back to normal for most of the area because most of the area wasn't impacted,'' says Richard Eisner, director of the Bay Area Regional Earthquake Preparedness Project.
For others, ``what basically occurred in 10 seconds is not over in the first year and won't be for decades.''
The Loma Prieta earthquake occurred the evening of Oct. 17, during the World Series, which made it a prime-time event. Centered in the Santa Cruz mountains 60 miles southeast of here, it claimed the lives of 63 people, 42 of them in the collapse of part of Oakland's double-deck Nimitz Freeway, which has since been taken down.
Although most of the destruction from the quake was confined to localized areas, a testament in part to modern earthquake engineering, property losses have totaled $5.9 billion, making it the most expensive natural disaster in United States history.
That more of the major physical repairs aren't further along one year later is perhaps understandable. For the first few months after the quake, officials were preoccupied in dealing with the emergency. Since then, they have been working through the Byzantine process of seeking recovery funds, hiring endless engineers, and submitting countless estimates. There has also been a dose of politics.
San Franciscans debated for months over what to do with the damaged Embarcadero Freeway, a double-deck roadway that runs along part of the city's waterfront. Some thought it cheaper and better to repair it. Many wanted it down, even before the quake, because they consider it an eyesore.
The County Board of Supervisors voted just last month, 6 to 5, to raze the freeway and build a subsurface and ground-level artery. But even that will take time: City officials want to line up federal funding before the bulldozers move in. Estimated time of opening is 1994-95.
``What happened to our freeways is not something that we or anyone else in the US has ever had to experience,'' says Kent Sims, president of the San Francisco Economic Development Corporation. ``When we get it all done it is going to be wonderful. But it is going to take us a little longer to get through it.''
In Oakland, feelings have run high over replacing the Nimitz, perhaps the emotional symbol of last fall's quake. The California Department of Transportation is looking most earnestly at building a new highway west of where the old one ran. But the agency hasn't completely ruled out building on the same site, a prospect that enrages neighborhood residents.
To underscore their opposition, residents plan to plant a botanical garden where the freeway once stood, both as a memorial to those who perished there and as a way to help keep state cement trucks out.
Plenty of rebuilding has taken place. In San Francisco's Marina district, where some of the worst damage occurred, the buildings that burned before the world's gaze have been razed. Because of high property values in the area, many residents have moved quickly to refurbish homes.
The smell of hot tar mixes with fresh Pacific air. Hammers echo through the neighborhood. Sidewalks that buckled like pup tents have been cemented smooth.
Economically, San Francisco has rejuvenated, too. In the months following the quake, the city was a virtual ghost town, with hotel rooms as plentiful as criticisms of Los Angeles.
But this summer the tourists began to return in numbers as large as can be expected for a country teetering on recession. The city set records for conventions in June. Hotel occupancy is up over a year ago.
``The city is not totally back in terms of some specific repairs,'' says Mayor Art Agnos. ``But in terms of the economy, we are back and better than before.''
At a cable car turnaround on Fisherman's Wharf, conductor Kelly Roumbanis glances at a long line of people waiting to board.
``After the earthquake, I could have recited the passengers by name,'' says the veteran operator. ``Now we could fill 10 times the capacity.''
Although out-of-towners have returned, the locals haven't. In part because portions of two freeways, as well as the Embarcadero, remain closed, many residents who normally come into the city to shop or eat have stayed home. Local visitation is off 8 percent over a year ago. The freeway woes, though, have had beneficial effects: Ridership on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) is up about 25,000 passengers a day over pre-quake rates.
``You still have some lingering effects from the earthquake,'' says Joseph Wahed, chief economist with Wells Fargo Bank. ``But I think the city has weathered the storm well.''
Those near the quake's epicenter haven't been as fortunate. In salt-scented Santa Cruz, a tourist and beach town, officials estimate 206 out 600 businesses were dislocated or destroyed in the quake.
Most of them were in the Pacific Garden Mall, the core of the old downtown. A few merchants are in the process of reconstruction. Others have relocated in blimp-like temporary pavilions. But many have left town and city tax receipts are off $1 million over a year ago.
``We are clearly still in a state of crisis,'' says Mayor Mardi Wormhaudt. ``A lot has happened in the last year, but it is not a dent in what needs to be done.''
Social problems endure. In Watsonville, 116 families remain in temporary housing as a result of the quake. Some 1,500 people in Oakland, which saw several of its low-rent downtown hotels damaged, remain displaced. Several calls a day continue to come into the San Francisco AfterQuake Project, a group that counsels people emotionally affected by the quake.
Still, officials in all these communities are confident better communities will emerge from the damage. If tragedy is the true test of character, though, many may not be able to declare triumph for some time to come. Tomorrow: The science of earthquakes, and preparations for another.