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COVER STORY

All Right Now

Ten years and $250 million after the Loma Prieta earthquake, Stanford has pieced itself together pretty well.

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AFTERSHOCK 1989: News of devastation and casualties elsewhere in the Bay Area put Stanford's losses in perspective.

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By Theresa Johnston

Like everyone else who was on campus that balmy Tuesday afternoon, Stanford archivist Maggie Kimball can tell you exactly where she was and what she was doing when the Pretty Big One hit. "I was right over here," she says, pausing by a freshly painted doorway in what was once known as Green Library West. It was 5:04 p.m., October 17, 1989. Kimball, '80, had just finished showing some historic photographs to a class in the nearby Barchas Room and was chatting with a lingering student, when suddenly the floor in the brick and steel building began to quiver like Jell-O.

"The student's first inclination was to get out, but I urged her to get underneath the counter, and then I started toward the reading room to check on other people," Kimball recalls. "I only got as far as the wall near the door, and that's where I stayed." As plaster snowed down from the ceiling, Kimball shielded her head with her arms and waited. "This," she thought, "is lasting a long time."

But just 15 seconds later, Kimball and her colleagues opened their eyes to a surreal transformation. All over campus, the quake had toppled bookcases and wrecked lab equipment; in the libraries, some 750,000 volumes spilled knee-deep onto the floor. At Green West, where Kimball had been standing, the 7.1-magnitude temblor shifted decorative columns and opened giant cracks, some 20 to 30 feet long, in the building's dome and walls. "When we walked up to my office, we could see daylight coming through cracks in the corners," the archivist recalls. "The next day, the engineers came through and red-tagged the building, and we knew we would have to move the whole collection out."

The Loma Prieta earthquake had an unprecedented national audience, striking just as the third game of the World Series was getting under way in San Francisco's Candlestick Park. Its toll was sobering: 63 dead (two-thirds of them in the Cypress Freeway collapse), 3,757 injured, 1,018 homes destroyed, and losses of $6 billion to $7 billion. Stanford's repair bill was estimated at the time to be $160 million, or 7 percent of the total replacement cost of campus buildings and their contents.

Now, 10 years later, it seems that Loma Prieta was good medicine for Stanford -- bitter, perhaps, but ultimately beneficial. Aided by federal emergency-relief grants and alumni donations, the University has spent more than $250 million not just for repairs, but also to strengthen more than 100 other seismically unsound buildings on campus. In the process, it seized the opportunity to restore some of its most beloved architectural treasures, including large portions of the Main Quad, Memorial Church, the Stanford Museum and Green West. The decade's effort has been so successful that the State of California presented the Governor's Historic Preservation Award to Stanford this year for "outstanding achievements."

The '89 quake also spurred major improvements in the University's contingency planning. Spooked by the destruction that might have been and aware that the Big One could happen at any time, planners worked hard securing fixtures and expensive lab equipment, storing extra food and water for thousands of students, setting up hotlines and improving signage for emergency assembly points.

It must have been difficult on that starry October night 10 years ago to imagine any good coming of the quake. As inspection teams led by civil engineering professor Haresh Shah, MS '60, PhD '63, fanned out with hardhats and flashlights, damage reports reverberated through the campus like aftershocks. In all, the temblor damaged more than 200 Stanford buildings. Of those, 20 had to be closed immediately. Hardest hit were older structures in the heart of campus, including Jane Stanford's beloved Memorial Church, which was strewn with chunks of masonry, fragments of gold and blue Venetian tile, and splintered wooden pews. In other parts of the Quad -- particularly the corners housing the foreign language and geology departments-- entire walls and floors had ruptured and shifted out of place. The museum's unreinforced masonry rotundas were so damaged they nearly collapsed.

The big surprise was the extent of damage to some of Stanford's larger reinforced-concrete structures constructed during the University's building boom of the 1950s and '60s before building codes became more stringent. At the Graduate School of Business, the quake left visible cracks in most of the load-bearing walls, forcing the immediate closure of the top three floors. Especially hard hit was the H. Hugh Jackson Business Library, where thousands of books were dumped on the floor, then soaked when a water pipe burst.

The quake also damaged many campus residences, forcing some 1,600 bleary-eyed students to camp out that night on lawns, basketball courts and friends' floors. The worst destruction was at small, older Row houses constructed before California first adopted seismic building codes in the 1930s. At Synergy House, a double fireplace collapsed -- and the vibrations sent miso soup spewing all over the floor, recalls Jay Swan, '91, who was working in the kitchen of the earthy cooperative. At Phi Psi, another co-op, two chimneys crashed to the ground, driving residents into the parking lot. Shaken but safe, they sat on cars and made the most of the situation, playing their bongo drums, flutes and tambourines well into the night.

In fact, for all the tumult, Stanford had reasons to celebrate. For one, the fault rupture was much farther from the University than in 1906. The seismic waves were relatively long and thus somewhat less destructive than higher-frequency waves. Moreover, Stanford had evaluated many of its older buildings for seismic safety during the 1980s and had already completed some major retrofitting prior to the quake, thanks to the foresight of civil engineering professor Shah and his former doctoral student, facilities project engineer Fouad Bendimerad, MS '79, Engr. '81, PhD '85.

At the Old Pavilion and Roble Hall, for example, workers had just finished millions of dollars in bracing work, conceivably saving hundreds of lives. And despite the structural damage in Green West, the library's collection came through relatively intact, thanks to a $5.5 million effort in 1988 to seismically brace the seven levels of tiered book stacks. Without the reinforcement, one official said at the time, some 700,000 books "would have been in a pile at the bottom of the basement" and water pipes probably would have burst, compounding the disaster.

Things could have been a lot worse for Stanford -- especially compared to the 8.3-magnitude earthquake of 1906, which nearly crushed the infant University. "Loma Prieta was in many ways a gentle event for us," says Anne Kiremidjian, MS '73, PhD '77, director of Stanford's John A. Blume Earthquake Engineering Center. "We were very fortunate that there were no deaths on campus and only 30 minor injuries. The University was shut down for only one day. There were no major utility disruptions on campus, no fires and only minor flooding."

After the quake, Stanford embarked on a huge rebuilding program. There was no choice: Santa Clara County passed an ordinance requiring all masonry buildings to be seismically reinforced. "Out of 50 in the county [that weren't reinforced], I think Stanford owned 48 of them," recalls Craig Comartin, a consulting civil engineer who oversaw much of the subsequent bracing work on campus. "The quake was a wake-up call that we would have to deal with these things sooner rather than later."

Finding the money was difficult and took time. Like many California institutions faced with sky-high insurance premiums, Stanford relies instead on its own resources to cover earthquake damage. At the time of the Loma Prieta quake, reserve funds for that purpose stood at about $7 million. Not until 1994 did the Federal Emergency Management Agency agree to pay some $50 million toward the University's repair and retrofitting costs. The state of California contributed $5 million under its disaster assistance program. Another $89.7 million came from Stanford donors, including hundreds who responded to a Stanford Restoration Fund campaign launched in 1994 "to put Loma Prieta behind us."

Despite a slow start, the recovery scorecard is impressive. Of the 117 structures thought to pose a risk to lives at the time of the quake, all but six have been fortified, and work has been scheduled for most of the others.

Among the first major campus buildings repaired and reopened were Memorial Church -- restored entirely with private funds in 1992; the Graduate School of Business; Main Quad buildings 300, 310 and 370; and damaged student residences. They were followed by Pigott Hall and Braun Corner (formerly language and geology corners) on the Main Quad in 1996, Encina Hall in 1998, and the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts (the former Stanford Museum) earlier this year. The last major project, Green Library West, will be rededicated as the Bing Wing on October 12 (see "You Thought Librarians Were Dull?" page 64).

The past decade's effort has resulted in a campus that is not only much safer but also more functional and beautiful. Roughly 60 percent of the $250 million spent on structural rehab projects was directly related to seismic upgrades. The rest was used to bring the buildings up to 21st-century standards -- with new plumbing, electrical work, fire sprinklers, interior finishes and access for the disabled -- while preserving their historic character.

In the Quad's language and geology corners, that meant leaving the original wood floors and trusses in place and adding wooden beams and reinforced concrete behind the sandstone facings -- a much more restrained and cost-effective approach than the "gut and stuff" method that destroyed the old ambiance of Math Corner during the 1960s. Today, Comartin says proudly, "the Quad has been given a new life. It was 100 years old, and now it's been modernized and should be good for at least another 100 years."

Still, Comartin cautions, the newly retrofitted buildings are not completely "earthquake proof." Given the huge costs involved, most have been upgraded only to the minimum level of "life safety" -- that is, they won't collapse on people in a localized quake with a magnitude of 7 to 7.5 or less. "If there were a major earthquake on campus today," Comartin warns, "we'd still have a lot of damage to the buildings, and the University's ability to maintain operation could be impacted."

Stanford's major task in the next decade will be to determine which campus buildings need further strengthening, so that the Big One won't jeopardize lives or incapacitate the University. According to the University facilities office, Stanford already has scheduled some $64 million in seismic upgrading projects for the next three years, plus another $209 million in projects with "a sophisticated seismic component." Among the buildings that need attention is Forsythe Hall, which houses all of Stanford's telecommunications equipment and also serves as a major Internet hub for the West Coast.

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Be Prepared

Until last year, earthquake provisions were buried underground in 12 campus locations. Now they're kept in five aboveground storehouses, which hold three days' worth of supplies for 10,000 students. Contents include:

  • food rations
  • hooded ponchos and knit caps
  • insect repellent and cortisone cream
  • aspirin, cold tablets, lozenges, antacid
  • bottled water and anti-diarrheal tablets
  • dust masks and smelling salts
  • flashlights, whistles, megaphones
  • radios, batteries, shovels, gloves
  • tissues and moistened paper towels
  • medical tape, caution tape, duct tape

Yes, it's a big wad of money. But considering that there is a 60 percent probability that a quake of magnitude 7 or greater will rock the Bay Area sometime in the next 30 years, campus engineering experts say it would be foolish to scrimp. "What worries me is that there is a loss of memory within the University about what happened in 1989," explains the Blume Center's Kiremidjian, professor of civil and environmental engineering. "There is a feeling that we have just spent $250 million over the last seven or eight years, and is it really necessary to be doing more? But I think Stanford should be doing more, because there is a lot more than property damage that can affect a university."

For example, she says, a protracted University shutdown could threaten research contracts worth millions of dollars. "If the Gravity Probe B physics experiment were halted by an earthquake, I think we would find that the loss to the University would be considerably larger than just the direct dollar loss for building damage."

A major University shutdown also could hit Stanford where it arguably hurts most: its public image. After the 1906 quake, Kiremidjian notes, Stanford simply dropped from public consciousness for about 15 years. In the year after Loma Prieta, freshman applications to Stanford dipped sharply -- by about 13 percent -- despite the fact that the quake caused no deaths or major injuries on campus. Even a decade later, prospective students and their parents occasionally pepper admissions and residence staffers with questions about earthquake safety on campus. Greg Beroza, a geophysics associate professor who serves as resident fellow at Rinconada House in Wilbur Hall, sometimes finds himself cornered by nervous parents at freshman orientation. "The out-of-staters tend to be more frightened of earthquakes," he says, "but I point out that Stanford's program for buildings is viewed as a model by other institutions."

Besides strengthening its buildings, Stanford works hard to forearm its community. Roni Gordon, manager of emergency preparedness and safety training, says there is now enough food, water and comfort items in aboveground storage containers to take care of 10,000 students for three days (see box opposite). All campus units have written emergency plans, including programs for securing potentially hazardous materials. Earthquake drills are routine in all dorms. The University has set up internal and external telephone hotlines that would relay recorded bulletins during a major emergency. (The toll-free number for people outside the Stanford area is 1-800-89 SHAKE.)

At Beroza's dorm, some precautions show a touch of wit. Each fall, around the anniversary of Loma Prieta, the geophysics prof plays dapper tv host Alex Trebek, leading students in a lively version of earthquake Jeopardy! Besides educating students about what to do in a quake, the game gives them a taste of Stanford history, including the devastation of 1906 and Loma Prieta. "The students know they're in earthquake country, but they're so busy, they don't think much about it," Beroza says. "The game is a nice way of making this whole earthquake thing more tangible."

For Maggie Kimball, Loma Prieta is still all too recently tangible. Boxes of manuscripts and other materials were piled high for a decade in the "temporary" office she occupied since she and her department were ousted from Green Library West on that warm October afternoon -- 10 years, she says, "of headaches . . . and sitting tight while the space was prepared." Finally, they began moving back over the summer. Like everyone on campus, she's learned to live with the threat of earthquakes. But at least the dust from the Pretty Big One has settled.


Theresa Johnston, '83, is a Palo Alto writer and a frequent contributor to Stanford.

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