On August 24, 2014, a 6.0 magnitude earthquake struck under the town of America Canyon, in South Napa County, California. The date was only a few months shy of the 25th Anniversary of the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake, the last major quake to shake the region. The comparisons between the two temblors began relatively soon, even before the true impact of the Napa event had come to light.
Both quakes had significant effects on people and property. Loma Prieta was stronger and more devastating in scale. Tragically, many people lost their lives in the Loma Prieta earthquake, which lives forever in the minds of those who experienced it.
However we may think of a disaster, whether “larger” or “smaller,” earthquakes like these are devastating to the people who are directly affected. They are almost always traumatized, and they almost always need help. The quicker and more accurately help can get to them, the better.
In 2014, that help was provided by over two hundred Red Cross volunteers and staff who worked on the disaster response in those first few days after the South Napa quake. Many of them were California natives who had also experienced the Loma Prieta quake nearly a quarter of a century earlier.
Amongst them were Tim Miller, Jennifer Jones, and Anne Steinhauer, three Red Cross leaders who were actively involved from day one.
Tim, the CEO of a six county region in Northern California that includes Napa, Jennifer, the Regional Disaster and Program Director in Tim’s region, and Anne, the executive director of the Napa County Chapter of the American Red Cross, were each shaken awake by the Napa Valley quake. Two had been about 50 miles from the epicenter, in Santa Rosa, California. One of the three, Anne, lives in Napa.
When asked to compare his experiences of the Napa and Loma Prieta quakes, Tim said it was the shaking motion that was similar. During both quakes he had been between 50 and 60 miles from the epicenter. “There was a loud sound, a sharp jolt, and motion side to side. It lasted for several seconds, but, where I was, nothing fell off the walls.”
For Jennifer, who in 1989 had responded to Loma Prieta to help her family and in 2014 to the Napa quake as part of the Red Cross relief effort, it was the way that the communities came together was the major similarity: “The community resilience is the same. People were thinking about neighbors right away.”
Anne, who remembers being frightened by the Loma Prieta quake as a teenager, was in her Napa home when the South Napa Quake struck. It was the emotional effect that she thought of when asked if there were similarities: “I remember being afraid to go to bed that night,” she said.
Like others who have a role to play in helping people affected by disaster, Tim, Jennifer, and Anne knew instantly after the shaking stopped on that Sunday morning of the Napa quake, that the work they would be doing for the next few hours and days would be a part of a greater effort to provide emergency relief. They knew this because Red Cross staff and volunteers have been responding to disasters for over 125 years, to fulfill the mission of providing disaster relief.
The reason for responding, therefore, was the same for both the Loma Prieta and the Napa quake. How they responded, however, was different in at least one way.
When comparing the Loma Prieta and Napa responses, it is clear that a new resource was being used by Red Cross leaders. It hadn’t been available to people like Tim, Anne and Jennifer in 1989, but in the Napa response it was the method in which they gathered and exchanged critical information.
That resource was technology. For Tim and Jennifer, it was one of the first things they turned to when the shaking from the Napa event stopped. Both reported that they almost immediately went onto their personal computers.
They checked bookmarked websites, corresponded by emails, and looked at current social media, in addition to the calls and texts that were coming through on their cell phones.
This technology made it possible for them to know, within 15 minutes after the quake, that the epicenter had been in American Canyon, a small town in Napa County, California. They were also receiving preliminary damage reports by that time.
By contrast, in 1989, there were no websites on home computers to log on to, no tweets and no text messages that could almost instantly provide updates.
“After Loma Prieta, the ability to get information was hampered by the very few phones that were working,” said Harold Brooks, who led the fundraising response for the San Francisco Red Cross Chapter in 1989. “By comparison, in addition to the news, you have social media, and all kinds of technology that make it so much easier to have situational awareness these days.”
When Loma Prieta struck, the world was watching, not from the vantage point of Google earth, but because the World Series was being broadcast from San Francisco. Feeds from the San Francisco radio and television stations went dark, and media crews scrambled to get boots on the ground to record the damage.
Meanwhile, leaders, staff and volunteers of the American Red Cross were also putting boots on the ground, to gather information and mobilize the response.
In 2014, Red Cross leaders, staff and volunteers still put their boots on the ground when disaster strikes, but from the very beginning the information they receive is well beyond that of 1989. It is those tweets and texts and all the rest that define one of the big differences between what was possible in 1989 after the Loma Prieta quake, and what continues to happen now, in 2014, as the response to the Napa quake continues.