Tag Archive: Caltrans


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.

alaskaviaduct1

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.

baybridge1.jph

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.

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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.

https://almostdailybrett.wordpress.com/2010/02/27/the-bay-bridge-is-in-the-water/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1989_Loma_Prieta_earthquake

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cypress_Street_Viaduct

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viaduct

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaskan_Way_Viaduct

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1971_San_Fernando_earthquake

 

 

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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