The author of Almost DailyBrett will not drive on the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle.
Yes, a reported 110,000 motorists each day use the picturesque Route 99 with its views of Puget Sound.
Just don’t count me among those who make the drive. The same applies for walking under the double-decker highway to check out the restaurants, shops and amusements fronting the water.
The reason is simple: Memories of Loma Prieta.
“The Bay Bridge is in the Water”
This coming Friday is the 25th anniversary of the 6.9 on the Richter magnitude scale Loma Prieta Earthquake that struck at 5:04 pm PDT just as the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants were preparing for Game Three of the 1989 World Series in antiquated Candlestick Park.
There is something about earthquakes. Once you have experienced a trembler, you instinctively know when it is déjà vu all over again. My first was the 1971 Sylmar Quake in Southern California, registering 6.6 on the Richter. There was a book case above my bed with two huge marble bookends (“dinosaur eggs”); one of which almost hit me in the head.
Twenty-eight years later, the Capitol dome in Sacramento was shaking violently. Al Michaels and Tim McCarver went off the air (in this case, not a good thing). There are no fault lines in the vicinity of California’s capital city.
My assistant press secretary was experiencing her first earthquake. She asked me to “make it stop. Please make it stop.” My influence was and remains limited when it comes to Mother Nature.
As the press secretary for California Governor George Deukmejian, I picked up the phone and called the Office of Emergency Services. OES will always take a phone call for the Office of the Governor.
Their info was sketchy, but here were the details: A major 6.9 earthquake hit the Bay Area. The Bay Bridge is in the water. San Francisco is on fire. The 880 Cypress Street Viaduct or Cypress Structure came down. The governor is in Germany … Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
Compounding matters were urgent thoughts about my deputy press secretary. He was sitting in the upper deck on Candlestick Park when Loma Prieta struck. Did he ride the upper deck down to the lower deck?
‘Stop thinking this way, let’s just pray for the best.’
Media Types Come Unglued
Our phone lines lit up (there were no cell phones, let alone texting back in the stone ages) with one reporter after another calling, and I was serving as the lead spokesperson for the State of California. Instinct governed me to buy time. Even though I was told the eight-mile, double-decked Bay Bridge (16 miles of cars and trucks) were in the water, I did not know that as a fact. All press secretaries make mistakes, particularly when one takes upwards of 70 media calls in a typical day. Thankfully I did not share the preliminary info from OES, which easily would have triggered shock headlines around the world.
As it mercifully turned out the entire Bay Bridge was not in the water, but a section of the top layer of the cantilever came down onto the bottom deck. The Marina District of San Francisco was on fire, but it was not 1906 all over again for the City by the Bay. The Cypress Street Viaduct collapsed with the top deck crushing cars and motorists on the lower deck, killing 41 of the 63 who perished in Loma Prieta.
The next day, I was playing lion-tamer beside the Cypress Structure with about 400 reporters, including dozens of cameras and sound booms, and one Governor George Deukmejian who was trying to personally assess the damage. It was the first time that I experienced the smell of death. Again, my instinct was clicking.
As the days went on, the media cover took a sinister turn. It was no longer, who, what, when, where and how … but why did the Cypress Structure come down? Who was responsible? Gee, I thought it was Mother Nature.
Did the governor veto funds for earthquake retrofit? Ahh … no. Did the state spend the funds for earthquake retrofit? Ahh … yes. Was the earthquake retrofit work completed? Ahh … yes, the first phase was complete. How does Caltrans test earthquake retrofits? Ahh … the Caltrans engineers shake models (You can’t shake a freeway).
One chain-smoking reporter for the now-hanging-on-by-its-fingernails San Francisco Examiner came up and proclaimed her reason for the collapse of the Cypress Structure: “(Caca) happens.”
Eventually the media lost interest in Loma Prieta, the very same natural disaster that inflicted an estimated $6 billion in damage and wounded nearly 4,000 in addition to those who lost their lives. In the Office of the Governor, we continued to set up gubernatorial tours of towns and cities impacted by the quake (e.g., Santa Cruz County) even though some media outlets passed on the story. It was the right thing to do.
When it comes to crisis communications, the predetermined emergency plan loses its luster. Instead, your instinct and training needs to kick in. Even though it is tough to be cool, calm and collected that is exactly what is required. And by all means don’t tell reporters, “The Bay Bridge is in the water.”
And maybe you shouldn’t walk under the Alaskan Viaduct either.