Saturday, October 17, 2009

San Francisco, October 17th, 5:04 PM

I drove across the Bay Bridge this morning, as did many other people. Many other people did the same at that time of morning twenty years ago today as well. It was a normal drive to them; they had no idea that they wouldn't be able to drive back the way they came for their evening commute. True, I couldn't say for sure that I knew I'd be able to drive back that way this year, but with the events of twenty years ago on my mind, I think I was more aware of the possibility that it could happen again at some point in the future, near or far. I suspect that other drivers on the Bridge were thinking about it more than they might have on any other day as well.

I can't know for certain, but I suspect that this anniversary was far more on the mind of the City at large than the 1906 anniversary was, for reasons of time and experience. Loma Prieta was, after all, a smaller earthquake that didn't completely destroy the City, but it was, in the grand scheme of things, recent, and it simultaneously highlighted what an overall smaller quake can still do to a modern city, and how everyday people can be absolutely heroic in their attempts to save lives and stave off more damage. It is still a shared experience among many people here (and even those who weren't here at the time surely know people who were), rather than a historic commemoration at which the few remaining survivors are revered as living monuments. It is still very much a living memory, a community disaster.

And the City formally approached it in a way that reached into communities, rather than as a ceremony to only draw out the devoted. Specifically, street fairs with a theme of earthquake/disaster awareness and preparedness happened in four areas of the City (Mission, Marina, Bayview, and Sunset), to be followed up by more informal block parties. This did not strike me as the most intuitive way to commemorate a disaster in which 63 people died, but I still volunteered to help out. After spending the day in the Marina handing out emergency preparedness activity workbooks and painting little kids' faces, though, I think I got the idea. Earthquakes effect the whole community, and the community does need to discuss them to figure out how to best survive individually and as a group. Treating quakes like the boogeyman, like something only to be talked about in a Very Serious Environment, isn't going to promote open discussion. The fair environment, initially jarring though it was, seemed to be an effective casual space to discuss personal experiences (I heard snippets of so many people's stories of what they were doing when the quake hit - and a guy from channel 4 news seemed outright disappointed when I told him I wasn't here at the time and thus didn't have my own story, since he figured I would've had an interesting little kid perspective on it), as well as a place where people could start actively building their emergency kits from items at the various booths. The fair was not a celebration of the earthquake, but of the ability of people to withstand it and resultantly know even better what to do in the event of the next one.

The fair was followed up by a more solemn ceremony, with a set of speakers including the chief of the San Francisco Fire Department, the Marina District Supervisor, and Mayor Gavin Newsom. The theme was remembering those who had died and praising those who did so much to save lives. The ceremony also served as a dedication of a new monument to the victims, survivors, and emergency workers of Loma Prieta. The monument itself consists of the brass nozzle from the fireboat Phoenix, which saved the Marina District by pumping baywater through portable hydrants. It isn't installed yet, but was placed atop its eventual location for today's events. Both the printed program and the speeches expressed the hope that the Marina Earthquake Monument will become a sort of "21st century Lotta's Fountain," echoing the post-1906 gathering place. Yearly October 17th ceremonies seem to be the plan, though I do have to wonder how successful they'll be. The 1906 ceremony evolved from the Fountain being a central meeting place. The Phoenix's nozzle was certainly central in 1989, but the gathering of crowds wasn't. I do hope that the annual meetings take off, however, and that they continue to be an environment in which people can openly discuss what they'll do when the next one hits, as they did today.

Some other things about today's ceremony echoed the 1906 ceremony I attended in April. Everyone sang again, the same song "San Francisco" as has been a staple at Lotta's Fountain for so long. I don't think I was surprised that the same song was used, though I did find it interesting that the same thing was used to touch the living memory earthquake as to the largely historical one. There was also a definite push to get things said before the minute of the quake, so that it could be set aside from the rest of the ceremony. But where the minute of 5:12 AM on April 18th echoed back to 1906 with silence, 5:04 PM on October 17th called Loma Prieta with noise. Mayor Newsom activated a fire siren mounted on the stage, and all the fire trucks collected around the Marina Green blasted their own sirens back. The fireboat Guardian spouted three high plumes of water back over the Bay, a display that served well as a visual representation of the sound. Once the blasting faded out, a bell that tolls whenever a firefighter is injured or killed was rung in a pattern that was at once quieter than the previous barrage of sirens, but more striking against its background noise level. It was as if the sirens were screaming, "This was our earthquake! We were hit hard, but it couldn't take us down, and what did go down came back! We are stronger than this disaster!" and then the bell added, "We still can't let it happen that way again."

As I walked back to my car after cleaning up the fair area, I went past the intersection of Beach and Divisidero, where the Marina fire started and hit hardest. The post-1989 buildings there are all solid and bright and without sign of past disasters. Behind them, the sunset backlit puffs and shreds of grayish cloud with shades of orange and red. It was a beautiful sunset, but in that context, I couldn't help but think it looked rather like a fire, fortunately constrained to the sky rather than touching the buildings below, but still reminding of a tangible past and a potential future.