Two decades ago, the Loma Prieta earthquake forced the citizens of Santa Cruz to come together and prove their resiliency and initiative.
“[Disasters] bring out either the best or the worst in people,” said City Manager Dick Wilson at the Earthquake Anniversary Commemoration last Saturday, adding that Loma Prieta definitely brought out the best.
Saturday, Oct. 17 marked the 20th anniversary of the infamous earthquake, which hit Santa Cruz with a lasting effect. Gathering in front of the downtown post office, hundreds of Santa Cruz residents came out in support of the commemoration, hosted by the City of Santa Cruz.
Leading this community event were public officials including Mayor Cynthia Matthews, Assemblyman Bill Monning, City Manager Dick Wilson and local businessman Larry Pearson. The hour-long celebration began at 4 p.m. and ended at 5:04 p.m., the exact minute the earthquake shook the town 20 years ago.
The epicenter of the 1989 tremor, which was recorded as a 6.9 on the Richter scale, was in Nisene Marks State Park and reverberated throughout Santa Cruz County. Although repercussions of the earthquake were also felt throughout the wider Bay Area, the disaster took an especially destructive toll upon the downtown Santa Cruz area.
“Twenty-nine buildings were destroyed in downtown alone,” said Mayor Matthews. “[The earthquake] certainly changed the course of the history of Santa Cruz.”
In an effort to record the personal stories of the disaster, there was a board on which crowd members could write their memories. People at the Saturday event were sincere and attentive, trying to handle the physical and symbolic meanings of the earthquake in Santa Cruz history.
“It is a somber moment,” Monning said at the event, as he remembered those who died and the destruction induced by the earthquake. “[But] we must also celebrate the achievement of the community coming together.”
The aftermath of the disaster was a challenging time in Santa Cruz. As the country was in the middle of a recession, city leaders at the time wanted to fast track every development project with the intention, as Wilson said, of “bringing in a new downtown.”
Through active engagement of a participatory citizenry and hundreds of public meetings, the redevelopment took its shape.
In commemoration of the leadership and decisive action taken by many public servants following Loma Prieta, including firefighters, police officers, elected officials and local citizens, the crowd showed undeniable gratitude at the anniversary gathering.
Dominic Gullo, a city employee who attended the commemoration, felt that holding the event in a public place showed an effort to create solidarity within the Santa Cruz community.
“We should educate people moving into Santa Cruz to not forget [the earthquake] … we need to eradicate people being oblivious to our city’s history,” Gullo said.
The Earthquake Anniversary Commemoration was designed to help local residents share a collective experience and an intergenerational memory and develop a relationship to place.
Monning called for attendants to rededicate themselves, saying that “we live in natural beauty and coming with this gift there will always be natural disaster.”
Before the commemoration was over, Mayor Matthews took to the podium for the second time and addressed the crowd.
“As 5:04 approaches remember the losses, and give thanks to those who responded, to appreciate the effort to rebuild — and to commit to creating the community we need,” Monning urged.
When 5:04 arrived, the clock tower’s bell chimed 20 times, representing the two decades since the quake. People in the crowd stood somberly still during this part of the ceremony, the sound of the bell resonating through downtown Santa Cruz.