I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet


I stare in awe at the slate-gray sky this morning.  The trees are newly-green. Just two weeks ago, they’d have been more twigs than leaves. It’s late April, and I just got news that over 100 people have died in the tornadoes that plowed through Alabama. They are truly magnificent, dangerous weather phenomena, and it sounds like, from all accounts, they will be visiting Northern Virginia this morning.

I’m not used to tornadoes or hurricanes. These are things we on the West coast never really had to fret about. Mudslides and road washouts were an every-winter threat where I lived, and the ubiquitous threat of earthquake constantly tapped its foot in the corners of your mind.  For years after the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, I’d scan the ceiling for chandeliers, and scope out likely places for a chance moment I may need to “duck and cover”.

It happened on a Tuesday, right at dinnertime. For months, construction crews had been pushing dirt from corner to corner, where the Stowell Building would eventually be. I was in the Dining Commons waiting for dinner and the ground started to rumble.  I thought it was diesel machinery across the street.  After a few seconds, the shaking grew violent. Tiles started falling from the ceiling. The power suddenly snapped and went out. People milled about in a daze. We found out later the quake’s epicenter was 8 miles away, in the mountains by Aptos.

Within five minutes, I began the hike up Tabor Drive with David Bazan to check on faculty members.  The first was Bro. Norm Arnesen. He sitting down in front of the television set, with a large bowl of salad.  When the quake started, he stood up and backed away.  The enormous wooden entertainment center, television, stereo, and a few dozen books, lay toppled on his salad bowl, where he had set it on the floor. We checked across the street at Mission Villa, on Carol Zeedar. She was fine, but definitely unnerved.  Next was Don Ryall’s home.  He was trapped in his bedroom. A landslide (perhaps 4 feet high) of CDs and shelving had fallen in front of his bedroom door and he couldn’t open it. His chimney had collapsed. Next, Arnold and Geri McLellan–they were fine–and the Stachs, who at the time, lived in the apartment downstairs from the McLellans. They were either fine or not there at the time. Next, Darlene Little, who was unnerved but okay, and then David Bazan’s house, where his wife was home and fine. Finally, Bill Kassis’ home. I don’t remember if he was there or not. We went back to campus. Dinner was free that night. Every 30 minutes, an aftershock of 4.0-5.0 would rock the campus, and we’d all cower in heartstopping terror for a few moments of rattling.

We slept in weird places because nobody was sure if there were gas leaks. We didn’t want anybody lighting a candle and exploding during the night. My first night after the quake was spent in the Dining Commons. I was living in the Spot at the time, rooming with Lee Owings. Our room was sort of a mess before the quake. With a few pieces of furniture flipped over in our room, it looked like the room had been abandoned for years and taken over by angry hobos. David Poling, posed as a dead body, to our pleasure, and produced this photo, one day after the quake, when we were allowed back in the Spot.

Post-Earthquake Room at Bethany Bible College, Oct 1989

The next morning, Dwight and Kathy Wilson came on campus. Dwight had shouldered a video camera, and I was right behind him in the Williams building as he opened the door to his office for the first time. his office, to be frank, was narrow as a walk-in closet in the first place, and he had books stacked to the ceiling on permanent shelves.  His office was a 4-foot high sea of books, covering the floor, his chair, his desk, his computer keyboard, everything. Kathy’s office was hardly touched.  Her spinet piano had rolled away from the wall just a bit, and a few books were on the ground. Other than that, there was hardly any damage to her office.

The waves of the quake only spilled things in one direction. I found this fascinating, as, for the next week, many of the students volunteered to reshelve the library.  Some rooms were damaged beyond belief, while others were relatively untouched. it had to do with the direction the shelves were aligned in relation to the force of the quake itself. Oh. And a bit of advice from a librarian: if you ever get the chance to reshelve 30,000 books, I’d recommend not doing it when all the books are on the floor in a heap.

To make matters worse, the next day, the rains started.  The roads away from Santa Cruz were bad enough with just the quake, but October 18, and 19, it wouldn’t quit raining. Unstable earth and lots of groundwater  made mudslides.  Highway 17 was closed. Highway 9 was closed.  Highway 1 was closed. I’m glad we didn’t have anywhere to go. We became a community. It was a bit like the Autumn break-from-Hell. classes were cancelled for a week. Nobody could leave. It was difficult to call out. Power was restored in a day or two, but until then, we sat in the relative darkness by candle and lanternlight and talked, sang, prayed told stories, got to know each other beyond the “what classes are you in?” level. It was this autumn, I really became close with lifelong friends Ken Smith, Karen Ledbetter, Allen Tuttle, Stacey Scott, and Carrie Robertson. Before this, we knew one another. After the quake, we loved one another. We called ourselves “The Family”. We were pretty much inseparable until our graduation in the very early 1990s.

For those of you who weren’t aware, there are several Bethany University theories as to the reason for the quake. At the very moment of the quake, Loren Bundt and Vic Kundargi were busy placing the lizard they had caught into the Dining Commons salad bowl. It was God’s personal and direct punishment against Team B+K for a prank that they obviously should have let me in on.  Another theory, and perhaps more prevalent, is the idea that God really couldn’t stand the idea of the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s playing in the World Series. It was Game Two. It had to stop. My personal theory, and nobody seems to remember this, is that God was annoyed with the Bethany Chapel series scheduled for the week of the Quake: it was a husband-and-wife chapel speaking about sex. They used puppets to tell us how to have good Christian sex.  Day One, Monday, they talked about sex. Day two, they got out the puppets and talked about sex. It’s my firm belief that on this day, God had just about had enough of this nonsense, had a little earthquake, and sent the puppeteers a-packin’.

So what have I got to say in all this? Just reminiscences.  That Quake was 22 years ago. We’ve since seen quakes in Iran, Turkey, Haiti, China, Burma, Indonesia, Japan. I try not to make light of the topic: thousands of people have died–been crushed both figuratively and literally–by quakes since Loma Prieta in 1989.  I can only begin to understand what others have gone through. It’s a relatively safe life we lead in the U.S. I had my moment of terror then.  And now I’m watching the skies. It’s dark out. Will I have a tornado to tell my kids about? I certainly hope not. but my memories seem to clump together around scenarios like this one, and, frankly, everyone should have a chance to tell their tale. Trust me. I work for the US Geological Survey now. I’m an expert…

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2 thoughts on “I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet”

  1. What fun memories, thanks for giving them a jog, Brian. That’s David Poling in the picture (and any others you have of some guy half-buried under stuff on campus. I was just the camera guy.

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  2. Having lived most my life in California, I’ve been through several earthquakes. During the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, I was safely 200 miles away in the central San Joaquin Valley, sitting on my couch, petting my cat after just getting home from work. When I went out to my car a few minutes later to get something I’d forgotten, the guy in the next apartment was nervously pacing and asking everyone, “Did you feel it? I felt it, and was watching the game, and it looked way worse there!”

    I moved to Bethany in the Fall of 1991, two years after the quake. We were still having after-shocks. My first on-campus job that fall was as Dwight Wilson’s T.A., and I’d already heard about his office. I spent my work afternoons trying to figure out how I’d duck and cover under my tiny typing desk where the Metaphor computer was kept. I also started work in the Library that Fall, and we were *still* finding books that had been mis-shelved.

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