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The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in Calilfornia left many visible scars as the chimney from this house shook all the way off the structure. (Photo by Kevin Quinn)

By Kevin Quinn, Public Affairs Specialist
Omaha District

Omaha District employees still remember their emergency duty performed following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California, some like it was yesterday. For many, it was the first time they’d served on the Emergency Management “A” team. So memories remain vivid.

On the heels of Hurricane Hugo, which hit the east coast in late September, came the Oct.17th earthquake in the west, which registered a 7.1 on the Richter scale. The Chief of Engineers, Lt. Gen. Henry Hatch, put the call out for volunteers immediately—response by the Corps was rapid. Thirty-two districts dispatched 500 workers to the scene that very weekend, including about 50 from the Omaha District.

What a sight awaited them --tens of thousands of Californians lost their homes and just as many lost their jobs. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the working arm of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) not only took on its usual task of conducting damage survey reports, but also took on the delicate chore of providing individual assistance. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t always pleasant.

Here are the thoughts of the workers who responded to a request to share their thoughts of duties at the earthquake site:

Robert Zaruba, Retiree (who called and asked if we were doing anything to commemorate the emergency effort in 1989…)
The quake occurred on Thursday. By Saturday morning, about 50 of us had travel orders, cashier’s checks and airline tickets and were on our way to Sacramento to assist FEMA and Sacramento District in conducting damage assessments. After getting a crash course on damage assessments on Sunday, about 250 of us commandeered every rental car in the area and drove to our duty station (Santa Cruz, Oakland, Watsonville, Hollister or San Francisco.) I was assigned to Santa Cruz.

The first night on site I was awakened by what I thought was someone shaking my bed. In fact it was one of several aftershocks we would experience. For the first week I was teamed up with John Sartore. We visited several homeowners each day in the Santa Cruz mountains. We soon found out that part of our job was to listen to their stories of their earthquake experiences. Each family was very grateful for the rent checks provided by FEMA. One night I met a man whose home had been destroyed by a fire. He was glad to see me. I believe that we provided a great and a timely service for these earthquake victims. I will always remember fondly the long days, meetings at HQ and meeting Lt. Gen. Hatch, Chief of Engineers.

Chris Wiehl, Chief Natural Resources, Operations Division
I remember it well as it was my first time working a disaster recovery. We left Omaha on a weekend and received our orientation briefing in Sacramento. We were released with a rental car to travel to Santa Cruz where I would serve the next three weeks. When we arrived at our hotel, only emergency power was available. I was assigned to work in the office while others ran around doing damage assessments for residential housing.

We did have Lt. Gen. Henry Hatch, Chief of Engineers, visit us and we had to roll out the red carpet, which is a real challenge when you're trying to work long days and get the job done. We were told the general would arrive by helicopter and we needed to work the logistics for his landing and the others details for his escort. We found two helicopter pads, one at the University in Santa Cruz and the other at the local hospital. We had to get approval from hospital security and the hospital administrator to land his helicopter since the hospital was the selected location as they thought the university would be too controversial. The hospital helicopter pad was in the center of the parking lot and all cars and people had to be stopped while they cordoned off the pad to land the helicopter.

As the lead helicopter approached the pad, he veered off last minute and decided it was not a safe place to land. I was told that the colonel of the Sacramento District was telling the pilots of the helicopter to land at the pad. But they chose to land at the University. This was a challenge for us to get the city bus we were using as a taxi to meet up with the Chief of Engineers and his entourage, which needed an escort through the city. There is more to this story than I care to say.

Harry Weddington's 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake video footage was used nightly by both California and Nebraska newscasters, Fedex was kept busy and the Omaha District's "Video News Releases" were everywhere. (Photo by Kevin Quinn)

I had a chance to escort Harry Weddington (Omaha District Photographer) around the city when he arrived to take pictures. We ran into several folks that asked what we were doing and we told them what the Corps was there to do. They thought that was fine, assessing and trying to restore the infrastructure. But they asked us if we could help with the emotional trauma they had experienced. It was an eye opener for me as we didn’t live through the earthquake. We were there to try and repair the damage so they could return to a normal life, albeit a “new normal” life.

Jeffrey McClenathan, Senior Hydraulic Engineer with Risk Management Center
After some training, many of us were assigned to FEMA's individual assistance group. This meant responding to individual assistance requests at FEMA centers. We arrived and were trained in Sacramento before most of us were sent to Santa Cruz, Calif. (Others were in Oakland doing public assistance work.) We spent about 4-6 weeks making individual appointments, completing repair estimates, and submitting them. They went through a review process (imagine this) that seemed to evolve day- to- day.

I found it very rewarding as many individuals wanted someone to just listen to their plight. But I found it daunting since early on we would show up with FEMA checks (sometimes upward of $5,000) that we had to make the on-the-spot decisions whether to award. After a number of robberies in Oakland (word got out that we had checks) we were told to stop wearing our red Corps shirts. Santa Cruz was my location (HQ was the Dream Inn) and the people were friendly.

Bob Buccholz, Chief, Hydraulics and Hydrology Branch Portland District
My recollection is that our response was immediate (almost too fast) and we accomplished the mission in a very timely manner. Visiting the "victims" to complete the damage surveys was both heart wrenching and heartwarming. There were many instances of major disruption of lives/livelihood but also examples of resilience and perseverance were in evidence. From visiting a young family where the large stone chimney went through the roof and landed in the middle of their living room, to a woman whose prize china set that her grandmother had brought over from Germany was just shards in a box on the floor. All in all it was a rewarding experience and something I will always remember. I also remember the camaraderie of the large Omaha District contingent that ended up in Santa Cruz.

One "it’s-a-small-world story" - While most of the employees staffing the Santa Cruz office were from Portland District, there were a few from other districts. I believe we were assigned in teams of four or five. I was assigned to a team mostly composed of staff from Little Rock District and one of the engineers happened to graduate from South Dakota State. We got to talking and realized we knew a lot of the same people as many of our engineers came from South Dakota State. When I transferred to Portland District in 1998, I began working with a structural engineer that looked familiar. He had transferred from Little Rock to Portland about five years earlier. He is now our Chief of Engineering and Construction. Small world.

Bryan Cisar
We gathered in Sacramento, Calif. where Team CEMRD (Missouri River Division, Omaha District) had to take any airline they could to get their ASAP. San Francisco and Oakland airports were shut down, motel rooms were hard to come by in the damaged area and thus we had a rally point in Sacramento.

They only folks who had a mission right away were the Geotech (Foundation and Materials back in the day, Soils Section A today) and a couple of Design Branch folks who had airfield pavement experience/expertise. Their mission was to go to the San Francisco and Oakland airports to do damage assessments immediately. They assembled their team, with Jack Monzingo in the lead, and left the rest of us behind in Sacramento.

The rest of "Team NWO" waited a little less than a week prior to being dispatched, all of us (50-75 or so) to Santa Cruz. It was definitely a "hurry up and wait" situation in Sacramento. What amazed me is, we all arrived at the Dream Inn Motel in Santa Cruz safely. Remember, this was back when no one had cell phones or GPS units to assist in navigating this move. This was when paper maps were the only thing that helped you get from unknown point A (Sacramento) to point B (Santa Cruz). The motel was very nice and located right on the beach near two boardwalks.

Our mission was to do damage survey reports (DSRs) for individual assistance in Santa Cruz. The individual assistance I was involved with encompassed quantifying damage to single family dwellings. We had to fill out a standard FEMA DSR form by quantifying and estimating square foot of this, cubic foot of that and linear footage of whatever, so the homeowner could receive a check for damage incurred to get them back up and operational as quickly as possible. I recall Jude Hobza and I were given many of the remotely located addresses that were hard to find or required some creative navigating around closed or blocked roads, so we saw many damaged areas and encountered some unique people living in the hills growing certain medicinal plants.

Joe Laird chased down the Chief of Engineers' chopper to get this photo with Lt. Gen. Henry Hatch in 1989 as he landed to survey the earthquake damage at Loma Prieta. (Photo by Chris Wiehl)

What I also remember was, there was a short stint where we, each USACE person doing DSRs, was given blank checks to fill out and provide the homeowner after we completed our survey. We proudly wore our typical USACE red shirts and jackets ... until, USACE persons doing the same mission in Oakland, Calif. were targeted by thugs at gun point for their blank checks. It was interesting, because one day we were told make yourself readily identifiable, let everyone know the Corps is on site doing good things and the next day we were told to dress in regular street clothes if we had checks. A day or two later, all blank checks had to be returned and a new strategy to provide recipients checks was implemented thereafter.

It was the first time I volunteered for an EM mission like this, where we/I was provided the USACE EM red shirts and red jackets ... and to be told to wear them all the time and be seen only to be told to not wear them, and "blend in" was interesting to say the least.

Lastly, I remember the famous Joe Laird picture taking incident. VIPs were going to come visit our EM Ops Center in the lower level of the Dream Inn Motel. They had a plan to land a helicopter in a beach parking lot near the motel. Joe Laird wanted to get the perfect picture of their arrival ... the story was that he came very close to the chopper as it landed and it nearly landed right on top of him. He rolled out from underneath it when it was a few feet from the ground and at the last minute. He became known as Crazy Joe Laird thereafter.

Kevin Quinn, PAO Specialist
I was just returning to Omaha from Charleston, S.C., where I worked on the PAO Team for the recovery effort following horrendous Hurricane Hugo. News of the earthquake hit on Oct. 17 and I knew I was heading west to join that effort as well. I arrived in Sacramento, got stuck in a few very long meetings and realized “I’m never going to get outside this conference room if I don’t bolt.” The news: our crews were heading to Santa Cruz, Watsonville, Los Gatos, Oakland and San Francisco. I got a rental car and headed to all those places, shooting photos everywhere I went. I was able to set up a few impromptu news conferences and I crossed paths with many Omaha District folks. I was there only four days but got enough photos and information to be able to tell the Omaha District story of both the Hurricane and the earthquake. A 52-page special “Omaha District News” detailed our service to America. I never saw people more dedicated, more focused, more resilient in my life—my first emergency management details left a deep, deep mark on me. More than anything, I’ll never forget the majority of the people who respected the folks in red coats and hardhats. They knew we were on their side. It made me proud.