Compared to the ongoing drought, which has led Governor Brown to impose water restrictions statewide, the threat of the earthquake conventionally known as “The Big One” looms vaguely in the unknown future. It could be decades from now, when most of us living are long dead, or, as the tragedy of the Nepal earthquake makes clear, it could be tomorrow. But what difference does it make, really? If it doesn’t claim us, it will claim our children, or their children, or theirs.
Reading the USGS survey and then about the devastation in Kathmandu and surrounding areas, I’ve been reminded of the biggest quake I’ve personally experienced, which doesn’t seem quite so big anymore. That earthquake, known as “Loma Prieta,” hit the Bay Area on October 17, 1989. News anchors called it the Great Quake. Over sixty people died.
Loma Prieta was a magnitude 7.1 earthquake that caused power outages, fires, even a four-foot tsunami wave in the Monterey Bay. The city of San Francisco incurred nearly three billion dollars worth of damages. Highways exploded; sewage crept into war memorials. Paul Newman donated 10,000 pounds of spaghetti sauce to the thousands injured and left homeless by the earthquake.
My family lost little by comparison: three goblets of opaque red Murano glass, with gold plated stems and a pattern of gold leaves spiraling up the sides of the cup. My mother’s painting of Kerala temple elephants dropped to the floor with a canvas thud. Books on artificial intelligence and Victorian poetry became dominoes as shelves bent and spilled their contents onto the floor. A Sesame Street VHS cassette turned itself on amidst the confusion. Wine bottles anticipated dinner; red, white, and rosé mingled and bled into the grout of our kitchen tiles.
I was four years old, coloring and listening to my mother’s telephone conversation with someone who, as I recall, was on his way to visit us via the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, a section of which would collapse in the quake. My brother, one and a half, was asleep on the sofa in the family room.
As soon as my mother put the phone back in its cradle, the house began to rock. The china cabinet gave way to the walls. My brother rolled from his perch atop the sofa onto the floor below, the power went out, and we both burst into tears. After the final aftershock, my eyes fixed on the phone. I was convinced that my mother had caused the earthquake. For months I believed this, with the fire of a young child’s conviction. Somehow, her hanging up that call had started it, the end of the world I’d known as steady California.
What was that world?
By the time I was twenty, we had lived in three houses in the same city, San Jose. Each was larger and closer to the country club than its predecessor. We had roses—red, pink, and white—in our first front yard. I, age three, rode my blue and cream tricycle onto the portion of the sidewalk that touched the neighbor’s lawn, ten feet from our mailbox.
The second house had a square-eyed garage door, squares so large and black that if you looked at the house straight on it was like a pale jack-o-lantern, crowned with bougainvillea.
There were swings in the backyard, and a narrow, yellow slide that bent and then broke as my brother and I grew. It was only when my family moved from the second house to the third that I missed the bougainvillea, the rubber-bottomed swings in our backyard. When I picture that house on Pinot Gris Way, I picture a light blue sky, snails in the grass, the neighbor’s child riding past on his bicycle, shouting the names of the Ninja Turtles.
The next year, we moved. I remember driving past rows of cloned trees, as similar to one another as the houses lined and facing them on the opposing road. I can see the trees, but not the fruit they bore. Peaches? We sped by too fast, windows rolled up to preserve the air-conditioning, and I never smelled the flesh of the fruit rot or ripen on the stem.
Later, when new houses were erected to replace the trees, we smelled paint and faced routine construction. The new houses were spongy blocks, echoes of the old houses, inhabited by the families of young computer engineers. New mothers lifted car seats from the backs of Hondas as older siblings roller-bladed around the cul-de-sac. Eventually, all the orchards were displaced. The nearby duck pond where a spiteful gander once bit off a souvenir portion of my father’s thumb was not so nearby after the construction. The houses multiplied.
These were no UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Still, they were our homes.
Our third house sat atop the ravaged, former terrain of long-eared jackrabbits, overlooking a golf course, a gated neighborhood, a grocery store with an Italian name, and palm trees imported from somewhere far away. From my bedroom window, some 15 miles west of the Calaveras Fault, I could see the neighbor’s unused, chemically balanced swimming pool and his exuberant attempt at a homegrown vineyard. All night, the sprinklers stayed on.
When an earthquake hits, you can find faults but you can’t find fault. It’s impossible to rationalize the brutality and contingency of moving tectonic plates that shift the earth 10 feet in 30 seconds. So if there’s a lesson for drought-stricken, quake-wary Californians to take from Nepal maybe it’s this: To be fully present; to see with open eyes while we can; to be stewards of the world we’ve gained, in the hope that some of it, somehow, will remain. Do what we can now. (Turn off the tap.)
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.