Monday, October 15, 2007

Not dead, but shaken

I really had no one but myself to blame.

Consider this: I chose my graduate school after a lovely late-March visit. But it wasn’t the California spring sunshine that sold me. Nope. It was a drive up Page Mill Road with two first-year grad students. A drive to the San Andreas fault.

When we got back, they pointed to the old, unreinforced sandstone masonry of Geology Corner. “They haven’t gotten around to reinforcing this side of the Quad yet,” they said. “So this could all fall down in an earthquake.”

We all laughed.

So, as I said, it wasn’t as if I hadn’t been warned.

On October 17, 1989, I had been a student at Stanford for three weeks. It was a beautiful afternoon, and I had spent it avoiding doing my homework, as any new grad student who hasn’t yet figured out that she isn’t still in college might do. Around 5 pm, I had finally settled down to work a little before supper.

And then the desk started to shake.

“Oh, cool,” I thought. “Maybe this is an earthquake!” I considered getting under my desk.

My desk started moving across the floor. I decided that maybe the door was a better choice.

I couldn’t stand in the door, so I sat and wedged myself in, feet on one side of the frame, back on the other. As the floor rolled like a ship in high seas, I yelled: “Is this an earthquake? Is this an earthquake?”

Then I heard the sound of glass breaking, and then all was still. Well, except for the fire alarm going off. I knew what that meant: time to evacuate the building. So I did.

It was hard to piece together the news that we heard over the car radio. The Bay Bridge had collapsed. San Francisco was burning. The aqueduct to Hetch Hetchy was broken. (The last one, fortunately, was untrue, and the fire in the city was restricted to the Marina District.) I did what any good geology student would do: I grabbed all of my camping equipment and prepared to survive for as long as necessary.

We slept on the lawn, afraid of aftershocks and gas leaks. The next morning, we snuck into a dorm to take a shower (because, you know, if there’s still water somewhere, one should always take a shower before the water is gone!), and then waited for news. Classes were cancelled; building inspectors had to decide what was safe and what was damaged.

By the end of the week, the “damaged” list included both my house (built in, I believe, the 1910’s) and Geology Corner.

I slept on at least three different couches that week. I learned everything I now know about earthquakes when the Geophysics Department decided to turn the event into a Teachable Moment. (It was a good idea, really. Though they still had a functioning building.) I missed getting to see Naomi Oreskes defend her dissertation. I packed my personal belongings into boxes in a moving truck, and my geology belongings into another set of boxes. It took a week to find a new place to live, and longer to find the location of the trailer which housed the new geology grad student offices. The post office never would forward my mail, because I had lived at a group mail address. For all I know, the Stanford Post Office is still throwing away my catalogues.

The aftershocks woke me up at night for the rest of the year.

We were lucky, in many ways. Neither my home nor my office (nor, for that matter, the Earthquake Engineering Building) was seismically sound. My house had a brick foundation; after the earthquake, it bulged in ways that a brick wall shouldn’t. (It was later condemned and torn down.) The sandstone of the Quad hadn’t held up particularly well in 1906, and it spent the 90’s braced so that the keystones would not collapse. (It was fixed and reinforced... eventually.) But nothing actually fell down on campus, except a chimney on another house, and a lot of bookcases. Further from the epicenter, a double-decker freeway in Oakland had collapsed, and people were killed.

But I survived with nothing worse than a lot of stress, and a good story to tell in class.


CJR said...

That's a much better story than mine - which involves me waking up to a shaking room, concluding that I was dreaming an earthquake (I was in the Netherlands, after all) and going back to sleep again.

Silver Fox said...

That is an impressive story about what sounds like a very scary event. I'm glad you submitted it to this month's Wedge - I might not have seen it, otherwise.