Twenty years after the fact, a geologist and a historian say we must not forget
“Loma Prieta was a humbling experience for most of us. a reminder of our diminutive stature in the grand scheme of things. I think that remembering events like that is a perfect antidote for our collective hubris; it keeps us honest.” —Sandy Lydon, ‘History Dude’
Each October, the venerable chronicler of Santa Cruz County—dubbed the History Dude—walks into the Forest of Nisene Marks. He’s not a leaf peeper per se, though this leisure interest is not beneath him. Rather, as he hikes up the trail amongst the redwood giants, his thoughts turn downward to the ground below his boots. A short while later—our Dude moves with the kind of speed that belies his professor emeritus title at Cabrillo College—he stands at the epicenter of the Loma Prieta Earthquake. Why does he do this every year? Because even for a retired history professor like Sandy Lydon, memory matters.
After the devastating 1906 earthquake that all but dumped San Francisco into the bay, survivors gathered around Lotta’s Fountain to remember the dreadful day of April 18. The large kiosk erected next to a fire road in Nisene Marks State Park is, Lydon says, his (and our) version of Lotta’s Fountain.
“Loma Prieta was a humbling experience for most of us,” Lydon says, “a reminder of our diminutive stature in the grand scheme of things. I think that remembering events like that is a perfect antidote for our collective hubris; it keeps us honest. I don’t expect Chambers of Commerce or elected officials or real estate agents to remind us—and the last-minute commemorations around here for next month is a perfect reflection of that reluctance—but I’ve always seen it as the responsibility of historians. And geologists, I guess.”
He guesses? The History Dude abides.
Lydon’s good friend, Gary Griggs, would no doubt beg to differ. As Professor of Earth and Planetary Science and Director of the Institute of Marine Science at UC Santa Cruz, Griggs can, of course, wrap his mind around Earth’s history and go back to points in time when Lydon’s historical subjects were but evolving in the primordial mud. Yet because of this county’s geological temperament, Griggs and Lydon often find themselves in collaboration, including the Loma Prieta Earthquake commemoration this week (see sidebar for details). Griggs has written several books on the vicissitudes of California Coast (another is on the way) and considers Santa Cruz to be a beautiful but volatile place to live.
“Santa Cruz has more geologic hazards per square mile than any county in California,” Griggs says. “From El Niños and coastal erosion at the shoreline, through the floods that historically have inundated Santa Cruz, Soquel and Pajaro, to failing hillsides and then ending at the summit with the mother of all hazards, the San Andreas Fault.”
The History Dude steps in to remind that indeed Santa Cruz’s very formation was predicated on a natural disaster. “I’ve often visualized,” he says, “the Indians living in the area laughing at where the founding fathers and mothers chose to put the Santa Cruz business district. So, the January 1862 flood convinced the good people of Santa Cruz that they needed to organize to effectively force the river over toward the east bank. Out of that flood the city eventually incorporated. Santa Cruz is literally the child of the flood of 1862.”
Of course, that 1862 flood is now memorialized by the Army Corp’s stunningly aesthetic attempt to contain the mighty San Lorenzo River.
Yet like the old biblical tale of the fool building his house upon the sand, the Indians were wise enough to live on the bluffs above the San Lorenzo River. Taking historical visualization a step farther one can almost see an Indian spirit (cue sound of eagle call) from the past shaking his head at the current location of downtown, resting as it is upon the liquefying sands of a floodplain. All this within plain view of the buckling Santa Cruz Mountains above. Thank goodness it’s all hidden in the trees.
“I believe,” says Lydon, “that it is a very human impulse to want to forget such catastrophes. After all, if we kept all of them in the forefront of our minds, we wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning. But, I think it is a healthy thing to go back to such events every now and again and warm them up, reflect, and see if we’ve learned anything—about everything from building codes, emergency response to emotional health.”
Griggs and Lydon have come to call this impulse “short-term disaster memory.” Having experienced a terrible calamity, communities intentionally suppress the memory. And often it’s in the economic interest of the community to forget. “Instead, you spackle over the cracks and then paint them over,” Lydon says. “Earthquake? What earthquake? Wanna buy a house?”
Lydon tells of his and Griggs’ several visits to Tangshan, China. In 1976 an earthquake hit the city, killing close to 400,000 people. As a rule the Chinese government is adept at suppressing memory, but this time decided not to rebuild in certain parts of the city, leaving the buildings as they fell as a reminder of the tragedy.
“We don’t get many years or time to relax between geologic disasters,” says Griggs, “and climate change is only intensifying what we were already exposed to. But the benefits clearly still outweigh the geologic costs of living here as people keep coming and property is still pricey.”
Just when we were getting down to accepting our fate of living next to a major fault comes global warming worries. No wonder, then, we possess such talent for short- and long-term disaster memory.
“It’s not by chance that pride has always been listed as the first, or source, of the seven deadly sins,” Lydon adds. “Nothing like a 7.1 earthquake, or its memory, to help us understand why that is.”
Photo Credit: http://sightandsound.com/earthquake.html