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.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Geosong: Liz Pappademas' "Loma Prieta"

It's been a long time since I posted a geology-related song (even though my collection of them has been growing steadily), but I've been waiting for just the right moment to post this one. Seeing as tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the M6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake, I think we've come upon the right time.

I found this song by typing "Loma Prieta" into the iTunes store, as I've had to get more and more specific (or obscure) to keep expanding my playlist. Two songs with the title popped up, and I downloaded both of them. This was the one I liked better, though; the other puts the quake into a relationships context, but this one seems like it must be describing an actual real experience.

I'd never heard of Liz Pappademas before, and I still don't know how well-known she is. Her website tells me that she was raised in San Francisco, but has moved around since and is currently a resident of Los Angeles. I think I could have gathered the first part just from the lyrics to the song. It opens with, "Loma Prieta, dark hill. Shook up the San Andreas to the heart of a little girl," and goes on to be an account of a very scary experience told through the eyes of a child who has some understanding of what's going on in a physical sense, but is having more trouble with the emotional side. She describes clinging to her mother in the doorway (nevermind that you shouldn't get in the doorway!), of school being canceled, of camping out in her parents' bedroom, of expecting aftershocks, and of feeling much older after the whole experience. There's also a stanza, a little more separated from what appears to be personal experience, that describes images of 1906 being recalled by the fires in 1989. I don't know how much a little kid would or wouldn't know about 1906 as a product of a San Francisco upbringing, but I do know the comparison is consistent with some of the news media about Loma Prieta. It's certainly a moving comparison in the context of the song.

In terms of the music, "Loma Prieta" is both simple and complex. It's simple in terms of its instrumentation - mostly just voice against a piano accompaniment consisting of elaboration upon broken chords, with a little bit of electronic stuff for color. The chord sequences are not, however, your typical I-IV-V-I of so many pop songs. I'd have to sit down and think about exactly where the chords go, but the specific progression is not the point - rather, it matters more that it takes a while to get to the resolution, and there are parts that don't get resolved. The melodic line is also very free, with phrases of unequal length and pacing. It also encompasses a wider range of pitches than many pop songs do; not lingering on a specific set of pitches adds to the somewhat freeform feeling of the song. In the way the melody is shaped (and perhaps also in the broken chord piano accompaniment), "Loma Prieta" seems to be toeing the line between pop song and art song.

I very much like this song, for its subject and for its music. I think that this free and sparse style of music fits the storytelling aspect of the lyrics, and I think that the lack of any attempt to paint the words with the music allows the severity of what the singer experienced to be come all the more stark and clear. The last verse also really gets me: "Loma Prieta, dark hill. Please stay dark, I pray, please stay still."

Please stay still. This is a very human thing to plead after disaster, but the plea is made to something that cannot and will not stop moving. That particular mountain may not be shaking all the time, but the forces underneath it keep grinding steadily away, and eventually, there will be another earthquake at Loma Prieta Peak. It's inevitable, and the music seems to know it, even if the lyrics pray for it to not be so - the final cadence never quite happens.

Liz Pappademas on Rhapsody. (You can listen to the song for free there.)