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Fitful Sleep

September 14, 2014

“The mountains and the canyons started to tremble and shake
as the children of the sun began to awake.”
– Led Zeppelin, from Going to California

Children of the sun in the Bay Area were woken up abruptly last month when a big earthquake struck at 3:20 a.m. on a Sunday morning. The epicenter was in southern Napa County, about 35 miles northeast of San Francisco, along the shore the San Pablo Bay. I was in a deep sleep at the time, but the room moved hard and the sound of the shaking was more than enough to stir me out of bed quickly. Some have said that I can sleep like a baby even if on a picket fence in a wind storm, but I was no match for this quake. It was a no doubter and the 6.0 shake had me moving pretty quickly. In no time at all, I put on jeans and a sweatshirt, grabbed the cell phone and was downstairs ready for the next steps. I positioned myself under a door archway and then used the phone to see what the U.S. Geological Survey had to say. After learning that the epicenter was two counties away and looking around to see there wasn’t any damage, I started to relax. But then there were the questions of an aftershock. Would there be another quake? Will it be bigger than the first? (Let’s hope not.) How long to stay up to wait for it? After a few minutes of this, I climbed back into bed, still wearing the jeans and sweatshirt, and went back to sleep. Only this time, it wasn’t so restful and when the sun rose, I woke up with a headache that stuck with me for most the day. I felt like I “slept wrong” and could just not shake the headache and tight neck muscles. I think the earthquake’s abrupt stop to my deep sleep was a key reason.

Of course, I was fortunate. Nobody was hurt and that there wasn’t any damage. This was not the case closer to ground zero, where without warning, people were injured, houses and other property were damaged and lives were disrupted by the earthquake.

I’ve been woken up by earthquakes before. The first time was soon after I moved out here as a student.  We had an amazing second floor one-bedroom apartment in a two-flat in a terrific neighborhood just south of the Presidio and the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a very nice place to live. The muted fog horn sounding off in the near distance was just one of the many charms of that neighborhood near the sea. It droned on peacefully in the background with a pleasant and steady rhythm. It was our own gentle lullaby that sang us to sleep those early foggy nights in San Francisco.

One day I was home from school, nursing a fever and a bug of sorts. I pulled out the hideaway bed, which was in the same room as the stereo, and was trying to beat the bug with sleep and music, the most therapeutic and potent set of tactics I’ve ever known. I remember resting comfortably in a hazy sleep when I felt the bed moving around. I didn’t pay it much mind at first, because I related it directly with a mild disruption from my family’s dog that I slept through for years. She liked to sleep under the beds in the bedroom in the basement that my brother and I shared. When she crawled in or out, she’d move the frame and mattress around a bit. No big deal. It was a well-accepted custom that wasn’t worth the mention then, but somehow sticks with me to this day.


Ginger, the family dog, keeping an eye on things from the top step of the backdoor stairway. Circa, late 1970s.

But I soon realized that “I wasn’t in Kansas” anymore. Ginger never moved the bed so violently or made the room around me shake and creak. Fever or no fever, this was something different. I jumped out of the hideaway bed and planted myself under one of the door jams for a minute or so, before getting dressed and running down the stairs and outside. I hung around for a few minutes, maybe chatted with a neighbor or two who had also sought refuge outside, and then returned, not knowing what else to do. I had felt my first earthquake. All these years later, they still grab my attention.

The State of California is trying to pull together an early warning system for earthquakes based on research performed by University of California scientists and others. Japan has used a detection system since 2007 and other countries, including Mexico, Turkey, Taiwan, Italy, China and Romania are also researching, implementing or using such systems. I say that if Romania, a country with a GDP one-sixth of California, is working towards it, certainly we can find a way. With an economy the approximate size of Canada’s, there must be money somewhere for this.

In the preamble to the bill that was signed by Governor Jerry Brown last year, the legislature made the following declarations:

– California is one of the most seismically active states, second only to Alaska.
– California has experienced dozens of disastrous earthquakes, which have caused loss of life, injury and economic loss.
– About 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes and over 80 percent of the world’s largest earthquakes occur along the Pacific Ring of Fire. The Pacific Ring of Fire includes the very active San Andreas Fault Zone in California.
– The Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast released in 2008 predicted a 99.7 percent likelihood of a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake in California in the next 30 years.

Accept it. All but the most oblivious of Californians appreciate that this is the deal. However, for the most part, most of us don’t think about it much. At least not actively. I don’t see how anyone could stick around if they dwelt on the fact that the ground that they are standing on could fall out beneath them or that thirty foot tsunami waves could crash ashore and wash away everything in their way. In a world that offers a full menu of self-selected sources of personal stress, in addition to many real ones, most of us choose to not worry about earthquakes. If pushed to think about it, Californians may just tell themselves that they would rather take their chances with earthquakes than live where there are thunder storms, tornadoes and severe winter weather. It’s a customary expedient and convenient rationalization that helps us sleepwalk through the threat’s reality.

The idea behind these modern early warning earthquake systems is to give as much notice as possible to people so they can power down industrial equipment, shut down trains, close gas valves and take other steps that will reduce the risk of damage that comes when our systems are ruptured by seismic activity. In some cases, as little as thirty to sixty seconds can mean a big difference.

Distinctive alarms could also be sent to cell phones, disturbing folks’ critical texting and social media activities with a reminder that it’s time to pull those white wires out of your ears and pay attention to the sidewalk that will soon crumble under your feet. Since we have so many earthquakes (a moving number, but there have already been fifty magnitude 1.5 or more in the Bay Area this month), the settings will have to be right. If notices are sent for small and inconsequential earthquakes, people will sleep through the alert like an early Saturday morning alarm clock on a rainy winter day.

It sounds like a good idea to me. Unfortunately, we need more than a lesson from the scientists and the government’s recitation of the facts. We need money too. Alas, these days money is scarce for infrastructure and public works projects and there’s nothing in the state’s budget to develop the earthquake warning system. The bill prohibits using the General Fund and instructs the state agency to find the $80 million it needs elsewhere. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake caused billions of dollars of property and other economic loss. An ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure. Let’s do this California.

If people in the Bay Area are nervous about the timing of the next big earthquake, they don’t need to look any further than our baseball teams. While scientists will say the an earthquake cannot be predicted, baseball fans will beg to differ. Read more about how these things work at an earlier Ram On blog post, The No-Hitter that was Almost Jinxed.

On September 9, 1969, the Cubs had been in first place for 156 days.  Then, at Shea Stadium in a game against the surging NY Mets, a black cat passed Ron Santo in the on-deck circle. The Cubs lost the game 7-1 and lost 13 of the remaining 21 games of the season.  The Mets went on to win the World Series.

The 1969 Cubs were on their way to the playoffs until this black cat crossed their dugout at Shea Stadium, the New York Mets’ home field, on September 9.

Although the 6.0 earthquake in Napa County was serious and nothing to dismiss, it does not compare with the damage from the 7.1 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the 5.2 aftershock that struck about a half-hour later. The 1989 quake released more than forty-five times the energy as last month’s quake in Napa. Early in the season, Bay Area baseball fans were predicting another big earthquake this fall, when they were looking forward to a World Series match between the Giants and A’s. Both teams got off to a hot start and had a commanding lead in their divisions. and it appeared that there was nothing holding either of the teams from a success season.The Loma Prieta quake hit the last time these two teams met in the World Series. It’s a perfect correlation. One World Series match and a quake so large that it destroyed the Bay Bridge, which starts in one town and leads to the other. Plan for it, folks.


We weren’t in California for the 1989 World Series, but J kept us in touch. She sent me this cap, likely with a pound of coffee beans from our favorite shop in Berkeley.

If you like the baseball superstition on big earthquakes in the Bay Area, you can rest a little easier. The September standings don’t look the same as they did earlier in the season. Fans are now losing more sleep over their teams than they are over earthquakes.

The Giants were up ten games on the Los Angeles Dodgers at the beginning of June. Fans were saying that the Dodgers were just a bunch of over-paid prima donnas that were only in it for themselves and that the didn’t have the makeup and fortitude for a long season. Implosion was impending and the Giants would whistle their way to the World Series. This was before the Giants went into a summer-long slump and the Dodgers started to pull things together on the field. The Giants have been playing better recently and are now only one game back of the Dodgers, who have been in first place since July 26. The two are battling it out at the yard in San Francisco this weekend and now, every game counts. The Dodgers’ 17-0 trouncing of the Giants out at the yard last night shows us that they are not messing around.


Out at the yard Labor Day weekend.

The A’s, who were in first place in their division for most of the season, have been in an epic slide. The team was up by six games early in the season and were tied for first as recently as August 25. They’ve lost twenty-five of their last forty-one games and are now battling just to stay in contention for the playoffs. They are now eleven games back and things look dismal. The Los Angeles Angels, whose pitching the A’s fans derisively dismissed and considered entirely outmatched by Oakland’s staff, are the hottest team in baseball and look unstoppable.

There are moments in any baseball season that remain with fans a long time. A’s fans will have many to choose from this year, including this past week, during the four-game series with the Chicago White Sox.  They lost three of the four and could only muster one run in the last two. Monday’s game was a real heart breaker, when the bullpen gave up the lead with two outs in the ninth inning on a score-tying home run by Tyler Flowers. Three innings later, Flowers hit another home run for a walk-off lap around the bases.  It was an awful way to end a game and if there was any doubt beforehand, A’s fans were now at a complete loss. Just how could this be happening to their Green and Gold, who just a few weeks ago were full of their own dramatic late-inning finishes like this, but now were sputtering? Confused and bewildered, with images of Tyler Flowers circling the bases not just once, but twice, they ended their day with a sinking and uneasy feeling. With nowhere to turn, but a slippery baseball fan’s optimism that tomorrow will be better, they cried themselves to sleep once more.



From → Baseball, Nature

  1. I should have guessed you would be able to link earthquakes and baseball! Fascinating to know that baseball fans could have a valuable insight into earthquake prediction. Glad to hear you weren’t hurt, and glad to hear you keep living there despite knowing there will be more. You and California seem to go together well. 🙂


    • Crystal, do you mean that there isn’t a natural connection between baseball and earthquake predictions? Why, sure there is. We have a 1:1 relationship with the Bay Area world series. Never mind those fancy pants scientists at the US Geological Survey, just keep an eye on the box scores.


  2. Having spent most of my life living in California with a side jaunt to Alaska and now living in Oregon, I am no stranger to earthquakes, Bruce. For a great lesson in their power make the short jaunt north from the Bay Area to Pt. Reyes and walk the earthquake trail that features how much the earth moved in the great San Francisco earthquake. I was in Sacramento when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck. We definitely felt it. And no, I wasn’t watching the baseball game at the time. 🙂 –Curt


  3. Glad you made it through the earthquake unscathed. Is that the same Jerry Brown that was governor of California some years back? Whose father had also been governor of California?


  4. I live up in the Pacific Northwest now, but I’m a Bay Area native and longtime resident. In 1989, I was renting an apartment in a partitioned private home in Oakland’s Montclair Village. When the Loma Prieta quake struck, I was in-flight to Memphis, Tennessee on business trip. We weren’t informed of the news aboard the plane. Checking into our hotel, the clerk remarked as she verified our id’s, “Oh, you guys just got out in time!” We had no idea what she was talking about.

    I went to my room and turned the TV on. I saw video of S.F.’s Marina District on fire, the collapsed eastern section of the Bay Bridge, and the demolished Cypress Structure on I-880. My jaw hit the floor! I tried calling my family and friends several times, but couldn’t get through to them. Our trip was ruined. All we could think about was getting back home.

    We returned about a week later. I had no idea what to expect. Fortunately, no one I knew was injured or suffered serious loss. Although, my brother had to evade some falling debris near Zuni’s Cafe on Market Street (it crashed into a parked VW Beetle). Surprisingly, my apartment was okay. The kitchen cabinet doors were all open and the dishware inside them nearly fell out. My TV was teetering on the edge of its stand. The sturdy wooden house was undamaged. It also escaped the devastating Oakland Fire two years later.

    Go Giants! The Dodgers suck! Oh yeah, the A’s are great too. Loved their three-consecutive World Series championships in the early Seventy’s (Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Blue Moon Odom, et al).


    • Robert – I am sure that you couldn’t get anything done on the trip, when you knew that your town had been hit so hard and wanted nothing more than to turn around.

      I am quite familiar with Montclair, or more accurately, was quite familiar with it. I used to spend a lot of time there in the 1980s. I don’t get over there that often anymore. Some of it remains unchanged, but it’s busier and denser than ever, parking is almost impossible and the descriptor “village” doesn’t immediately come to mind. But the trees are still there, the weather is always fantastic and you can still find a good cup of coffee.

      The original Oakland A’s were very good teams. The franchise still honors and refers back to them at the yard, on the radio and on the TV broadcasts. As they should.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Are you a sports writer for a living? If not you should be. I will check the baseball stats for upcoming natural disasters. Meanwhile, pretty sad that money for disaster prevention cannot be found in the municipal budgets. I guess I should not be surprised


    • Yes, LMA. Have someone run the data for you to find the correlations, let those Red Sox fans know about it and you’ll open up a whole new way of predicting your wet summers, dry summers, when to plant the tomatoes, you name it.


  6. My 1989 “Battle of the Bays” tee-shirt is one of my favorite things. A tee-shirt that lives 25 years and stays in one piece — wash after wash after wash — speaks to the toughness of the Bay Area (or to the higher quality tee-shirts of the 1980s).

    As for earthquakes predicting things like World Series. I’m good with that. I recall the 1983 Coalinga earthquake (6.2, with 5000+ aftershocks).

    1983 World Series was the Battle of I-95 … Orioles over Phillies. This year, I like our own East Coast “Battle of the Beltway” Orioles vs. Nationals, which sort of has the same feel as your Giants/A’s relationship (except that both stadiums are nice). Scrappy, working-guy, low payroll, overachieving AL team vs. privileged, white collar NL team.

    Still, I’d rather see the O’s play the Giants in the WS. And, while I do love the Giants, I left my heart in Baltimore! 🙂


    • Attire at the ballpark is always fun. People reach deep into the closet for the lucky cap, the special commemorative shirts, and the far-out and zany when they go out to the yard. Glad you are still wearing that “Battle of the Bay” shirt.

      Another Bay Bridge series would be fun, but we are not getting enough cooperation from the other 28 teams. It is going to require a turbo-charged stretch that goes all the way through the end of the season and into the playoffs. If we don’t get there, I can find some O’s colors to wear to pull for them. Not so for the Nationals. There are too many other NL teams I’d have to pull for first.


  7. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    Having been in the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco and the Napa Valley I was interested to read this post by Bruce Thiesen about this more recent event.


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