University News

A letter from the Editor

By Louise Sloan '88 / June–August 2024
June 6th, 2024

My NYC friends were freaking out in April after a 4.8 earthquake. “Sh***t we just had an earthquake” went one Facebook post from normally erudite Columbia professor Marie Myung-Ok Lee ’86. I could relate. In October 1989 my then-partner Joan Hilty ’89 and I had only been in San Francisco a month. I was temping as the receptionist at a law firm downtown when the 6.9 quake hit. “This is just one of those little earthquakes like they have all the time out here,” I said to my East Coast self. “No big deal; play it cool.” Like earthquake scientist Michael Blanpied ’85 ScM, ’89 PhD, I had nothing to compare it to.

I walked calmly to the nearest door frame [no longer recommended] and stood there acting casual. The phone on the reception desk was blinking red and emitting little fluttery rings from the motion. The building bucked and rolled like the Fun House at the state fair. “It’s cool,” I told myself again. The fluorescent lights went out. Outside the 12th floor window, office buildings swayed back and forth, in and out of the window frame, against the bright blue sky. I noticed that folks in the office who were actually from San Francisco were starting to freak out. “Or,” I thought to myself, “this is the Big One and we’re all gonna die.” I was just starting to consider freaking out, myself, when the motion stopped.

“Or,” I thought to myself, “this is the Big One and we’re all gonna die.”

The quake’s carnival ride over, I
picked my way in my ’80s receptionist costume down 12 flights in the pitch-black stairwell and spilled onto the street along with thousands of others. No one seemed panicked. It was like a big crowd waiting for a parade to start.

In San Francisco the buses are electric—great for breathing, bad for travel in a blackout. All public transit was shut down. I decided to hoof it and got as far as Union Square, about three blocks from the office, where the huge windows of a department store lay shattered on the sidewalk—the first earthquake damage I’d seen. Looking at the shards of glass glinting menacingly in the late-day sunshine, I started to have second thoughts about a solo trek in my flimsy silk-and-pumps ensemble through unknown neighborhoods as the sun went down. Back on Market Street I heard a horn honking. “Louise! Louise!” Magically, there was Joan, in our car, come to save me.

It was the aftershocks that destroyed my nervous system, knowing by then about the destruction and death in the Marina district and on the Bay Bridge (which I was originally supposed to be on that day at about that time—my mom was losing it until Nina Jacobson ’87 got through to me and then her).

This issue offered me a lot to connect to—I had friends on the women’s rugby team (p. 18), I love to travel, but prefer slow (p. 80), and my high school senior son likely got a leg up in college admissions (he didn’t apply to Brown) due to his athletic prowess and I question the fairness of that (p. 16). But Loma Prieta was up there with 9/11 and Covid for me. I think maybe I’ll be heeding Blanpied’s “preparedness over prediction” advice and laying in some emergency supplies. Happy summer!

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