The capitol building was shaking violently. And yet there are no faults in the immediate vicinity of Sacramento.

Instantly, I picked up the phone and called the State Office of Emergency Services. I inquired about the first reports that “San Francisco is on fire” and “The Bay Bridge is in the water.” I was numb and couldn’t even conceive the horrific nature of the 6.9 on-the-Richter-scale, Loma Prieta Earthquake http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loma_Prieta_Earthquake. It was October 17, 1989 and I was the press secretary to California Governor George Deukmejian http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Deukmejian. This one was on our watch.

Reading and watching the news reports today of the reported 8.8-on-the-Richter-scale earthquake in Chile it is almost impossible to comprehend the magnitude of the quake. The Chile trembler is at least 100 times more powerful than the Loma Prieta Earthquake that rocked Northern California. A seismologist can tell you for sure what is the difference in degree, but rest assured it is huge.

baybridge

For those in public relations/crisis communications, a major natural disaster requires you to throw away the manual. Yes contact information is incredibly valuable, but you are left to your instincts and your training as a reporter/journalist. Who? What? When? Why? How? You are now a hunter-gatherer, in this case you are searching and clawing for information, particularly correct information. What are the facts? What is the truth on the ground? Is the Bay Bridge really in the water? More importantly, what are you (e.g. State of California) going to do about it?

The first three days after the Earthquake were mainly focused on getting the governor to the site (he was in Frankfurt, Germany when Loma Prieta hit) and coordinating the state’s emergency response. The media was constantly reporting changing figures about where was the epicenter? What was the intensity? How many have been killed and injured? And what are the damage estimates? Fair enough.

And then, the reporting took a more sinister turn.cypressstructure

The biggest issue in Loma Prieta was the collapse of the Cypress Street Viaduct of the “Nasty Nimitz,” Interstate 880 in Oakland, CA http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cypress_Street_Viaduct. A 1.25-mile section of the freeway failed with the top deck crushing cars on the lower deck, killing 41 drivers and passengers. The media wanted to know who was responsible.

Gee, wasn’t it Mother Nature?

Did Governor Deukmejian veto funds for earthquake retrofit? Did the state allocate funds for earthquake retrofit? Did the state actually complete the earthquake retrofit work? Why did the freeway collapse? Why were the Caltrans (California Department of Transportation) engineers wrong? The questions came pouring in. Thankfully we had not vetoed funds. We had actually allocated these resources. Work had been done, but still the freeway collapsed.

Here is my question that is just as relevant today as it was 21 years ago: Why was the media so obsessed with assigning blame in a natural disaster? No one wanted the Cypress Structure to come down, but it did. There are always lessons to be learned after any disaster.

Finally after 10 days of this grueling exercise, a chain-smoking reporter came up to me and in her raspy voice she summed up what happened to the Cypress structure, “(Caca) happens.”reporters

The media has a job to do in providing valuable information to the public about a natural disaster, but don’t be mistaken into thinking we are all in this together. If you are working for a major public official or a major corporation in an affected area, you should understand that the Fourth Estate is more than happy to make this your responsibility. For reporters, the bigger you are, the harder you can fall and we are not talking about bridges and buildings. Effective crisis communications also involves never letting down your guard and being as vigilant about protecting reputations as ever.

In the final analysis, your organization needs to be part of the answer. You need to demonstrate your concern about your own employees, your communities and society as a whole. For the State of California, we worked to tirelessly to demonstrate our response to the earthquake and care for the people who were affected. In fact, we continued to work on our response long after the media grew tired and weary of the story.

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