In the past few days, a scad of natural disaster memories flooded back to me. Some were deadly, and some came with happy endings.

At 8:20 p.m. Friday night in Palm Springs, California I was reading Emile Zola’s novel The Masterpiece, when the 7.1 earthquake hit 125 miles away. Built to withstand almost anything, my 55-year-old house felt like a big swing, swaying heavily in slow motion for about 10 seconds. No damage, just a few moments of fear. The epicenter was Ridgecrest, California, a Mojave Desert town northeast of Los Angeles.

The night before I felt the 6.4 quake while sleeping in LA, not as powerful, more of a jerky jolt and shorter in duration. As luck would have it, Ridgecrest was again the center of that seismic rattler.

The last few days, a scad of natural disaster memories flooded back to me. Some were deadly and some came with happy endings. I never lost any property, but, instead, I was a first-hand observer at the moment, and more so in the aftermath. Loss is heart-wrenching; recovery can be daunting but heartwarming. 

When the Loma Prieta earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989, I was living in Oakland with my budding family. With my young children Cal and Liz, we were ready to watch the World Series on TV — the San Francisco Giants versus the Oakland A’s. It was dubbed the “Bay Bridge Series.” Moments before the game began, the 6.9 tremor hit and one span of the Bay Bridge collapsed. Sixty three people died and 3,700 were seriously injured in the Loma Prieta.

When we first felt the scary shake, I yelled at the kids to get under the kitchen table. My five-year old daughter Liz yelled back, “No, Dad, get under the door jam, we just learned that in our earthquake class” in kindergarten. She was the boss of the family, so we listened.

After things settled, I went outside to see many of my neighbors lingering with that zombie look so common after disasters. We shared stories of our personal damage, which only amounted to shattered plates, pictures and a few overturned furniture items. One of my neighbors fell out of bed but was okay. Exaggerated claims circulated, like “San Francisco is burning.” Several blocks in the Marina District were in fact on fire and damage was widespread. 

Throughout the populated Bay Area, the infrastructure damage was jolting and an expensive and long process to recover from. The Cypress Freeway, the main highway artery from the Silicon Valley up to Berkeley, had collapsed. And the notoriously ugly Embarcadero Freeway that ribboned San Francisco from the Bay suffered enough damage that it had to be torn down. That outcome was an aesthetic relief and revived the entire Bay front.

Back in Oakland, one of my neighbors yelled “Turn off your gas,” which I hurriedly did.  

That was a mistake. There was very little danger under the circumstances and it took PG&E a month to turn it back on. Inconvenience can oddly be more important than safety, as life goes on.

At the time, I was a journalist and a part of my beat was covering the aftermath of disasters. I was inspired by what people did to rebuild and troubled by how governments and insurance companies often got in the way of the recovery. It was the sort of inexplicable tension that journalists love to write about.

Disasters are often followed by a second calamity. Bureaucrats can slow down rebuilding with too many plans, reviews and rules, and greedy insurance companies often cram down their customers, reducing their obligations by falling back on fine print in insurance documents.

South Florida’s Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was the worst, with 63,500 homes destroyed and another 125,000 damaged. Sixty-three people died. The insurance companies were not just stingy, they were unprepared to cover the damage. How we insure homes changed radically after that monumental disaster with property owners carrying more of the burden today.

One fond recollection amid the many tragic episodes happened just days after the 1991 Berkeley-Oakland, California fire where 25 people died and 2,853 homes were destroyed in just 18 hours. It was not just a fire, it was a firestorm, in which the heat created its own wind-like force.

George and Lucille Boero (grandparents of industry guru Brian Boero) lost their home in the Upper Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland. Soon after, they drove up to the fire zone and inspected their destroyed house. The only thing standing was their mailbox, which George opened to find a note from his next door neighbor Mike Holland, who also lost his home. The note read simply, “Let’s rebuild.”

Cars melted in garages in that fire. But dotting the ashen hillsides were Weber grills still standing, almost proudly.

At the time, the biggest personal loss (pre-digital cameras) for some families were their pictures. But friends and family would pool their photographs and prepare photo albums for the fire victims. One resident said, “Our pictures were all mixed up in a big box under the bed. Now we have tidy new photo albums.”

Today, the neighborhood is better off than it was before, with new streets, sidewalks and underground utilities. Most homes were designed by architects with impressive landscaping. In this case, insurance companies were held accountable, intimidated by the activists and the many lawyers who populated the beautiful hillsides that overlook the San Francisco Bay.

Indeed, the unevenness of insurance payouts has always been irksome. Many of the homes lost in Hurricane Andrew were located in poorer neighborhoods with many mobile homes where folks were left empty handed.

When I visited the damage from the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and Tsunami in Phuket, Thailand, I was overwhelmed by the grassroots rebuilding effort. Families, including seniors and children, were hard at work with picks, shovels and buckets, clearing their home sites one scoop at a time. 4,812 people died in that disaster. People are anxious to get on with their lives. It is the best drug for coping with the grief.

Natural disasters harshly remind people that some things are out of our control. Nothing except the illness or death of family and friends doubles us up more than the destruction of our homes and our communities.

But equally powerful is our drive to get settled in our homes again.

Email Brad Inman

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