Rebuilding a quake-devastated community

And what NZ can learn from it

NIKKI MACDONALD
Last updated 05:00 07/05/2011

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The Loma Prieta earthquake that struck the town of Santa Cruz in 1989 flattened the downtown area and shattered lives.

Nikki Macdonald travels to California to see how a community rebuilds and recovers - and what New Zealand can learn from the aftermath.

Table of Contents:

A LUCKY DECISION

A NEW STREET - A NEW SPIRIT

DECIDING HOW TO REBUILD

WHO'S GOING TO PAY?

THE FACE OF SANTA CRUZ'S QUAKE

PICKING UP AND GETTING ON WITH LIFE

SANTA CRUZ REDEVELOPMENT TIMELINE

COMPARING LOMA PRIETA WITH CHRISTCHURCH


A LUCKY DECISION

Baseball saved John Talbot. It was October 17, 1989 - the afternoon of the World Series final between Oakland and San Francisco. Mr Talbot, then 21, was a coffee roaster in the coastal California town of Santa Cruz, 115 kilometres south of San Francisco.

He told workmates Shawn McCormick and Robin Ortiz he was leaving early to catch the first pitch, and was heading home when, at 5.04pm, the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake struck. The devastating tremors were captured by television cameras at the baseball ground -  the first big American quake to be broadcast live - and led to the natural disaster being dubbed the World Series Earthquake.

The lamp-posts slapped back and forward and the street snaked. The tremors were scary, but lasted only 15 seconds and Mr Talbot didn't think too much of it. But then he arrived home - and heard people were trapped at the coffee roasters. Mr Talbot ran back into town. The quake had reduced the central business district to rubble, killing three people. The historic Pacific Garden Mall, the pulse of the town, was a mash of bricks and glass.

When he arrived at Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting, he saw the building had crumpled under two metres of bricks, which had rained down from the next-door bookshop. Mr McCormick was dead. The shouts of Ms Ortiz's friends calling her name echoed around downtown for two days before her body was finally found.

Mr Talbot joined the line of impromptu rescuers, digging out bricks as aftershocks continued. Then Mr McCormick's mother arrived.

"I actually had to tell her that Shawn had passed away. She started punching me and hitting me and telling me I was lying. All I could do really was put my arms around her and hold her. It was a pretty heavy scene."

So heavy that Mr Talbot had to get out. He'd had his struggles with partying and drink but had sobered up. But his first thought was "Oh my God, I need a drink."

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The neighbouring Bookshop Santa Cruz was quickly red tagged as unsafe by building inspectors. Owner Neal Coonerty was at a doctor's appointment 50km away in San Jose when the quake hit. The connecting highway was blocked, so he wound his way along mountain roads to get back to Santa Cruz.

The sight of the half-collapsed building was stomach-churning: with the house securing their business loans and his Christmas stock buried, Mr Coonerty knew he faced financial ruin.

"I felt like I no longer had any leeway to make a mistake," he recalls.

"Every day I had to do something and do it right."

He was given 15 minutes to recover critical items. He taped torches to his forearms and ran through the store, grabbing financial records and staff personal items, throwing them on the footpath and returning inside. On the last pass, he grabbed a wooden rocking horse that had entertained generations of Santa Cruz children.

"I figured if we were going to start over, we would want one symbolic thing for the store."

Like many Santa Cruz businesses, Mr Coonerty's bookshop was independent, with a fierce following. So when he asked the community to donate five books to help save the store, many brought their five favourite titles, and bought them right back.

Meanwhile, Mr Coonerty found a structural engineer who suggested building a tunnel to get the books out safely. City officials approved the plan and the Coonertys asked for volunteers.

"My wife and I came down early in the morning expecting to see some employees and a couple of friends. There were 400 people lined up and they all were getting hard hats and signing a waiver. For two days they pulled out well over 100,000 books. We set up tables in the parking lot. The newspaper gave us a forklift. A trucking company gave us a truck to store them. Librarians and staff from other bookshops helped sort, dust and seal them in boxes. We literally were a bookstore saved by its community."

It was that community spirit that anchored Santa Cruz's long road to recovery. While the damage was on a smaller scale than in Christchurch, the city centre impact was similar. So when University of California Berkeley architecture professor Mary Comerio visited New Zealand in March, she suggested Christchurch Chamber of Commerce look to Santa Cruz for ideas and hope. If the people of Santa Cruz have a message for those in Canterbury, it is this - a city can be rebuilt. And rebuilt better.

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A NEW STREET - A NEW SPIRIT

It's a sunny Sunday afternoon and Pacific Ave - the renamed, revamped and revitalised Pacific Garden Mall - is humming. The only screams are ones of delight from the city's 100-year-old Beach Boardwalk amusement park.

From the beach end, the thrift shops give way to trendy shoe stores and restaurants spilling on to the pavement. Blond surfies browse the O'Neill shop, the brand that was born in this laid-back university town of 60,000. Outside, a crowd listens to a string quartet raising money for Japanese quake and tsunami victims.

It's clearly a prosperous shopping and meeting hub.

New two-storey and three-storey buildings co-exist with the mostly single-storey earthquake survivors. Locally owned boutiques neighbour national chain stores - Starbucks stands opposite Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting.

Santa Cruz residents might lament the loss of history. But if they're honest, they'll tell you Pacific Ave today is better, busier and safer than before the quake changed the streetscape forever.

But nobody pretends it was an easy task transforming the wrecked town that emerged after multiple demolitions into the bustling centre you see today.

As individual business owners tallied their losses and examined their options, the townspeople quickly realised that the task ahead was far bigger than simply replacing a few buildings.

The utilities were ruined. One million square feet (93,000sqm) of buildings were affected. One third were immediately red-tagged. One third were threatened by other buildings. One third were yellow tagged as potentially unsafe. The damage was equivalent to almost twice the city's annual building activity. Thirty-four buildings had to be demolished. Only two building owners had earthquake insurance.

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DECIDING HOW TO REBUILD

Even before the quake, downtown Santa Cruz was declining, its prosperity eroded by global recession and the growth of the 41st Ave mall across town.

Most upper-floor premises were vacant. They were a known earthquake risk, but opposition from retailers fearing rent increases stymied attempts to enforce seismic upgrades. It was becoming seedy, deserted at night and with vagrants taking over park benches.

When the shock subsided, politicians, residents and business owners realised that, as well as a daunting task, they had been handed an opportunity.

"Your initial reaction is 'Can everything ever be OK again?" city planner Charles Eadie says.

"The first impulse after a disaster is to put everything back the way it was. You can't do that. The first thing that has to happen is that people have to get that. Not just intellectually, but emotionally."

That meant accepting it was never going to be economically viable for the town's three department stores to return; that rents would soar to pay for rebuilds and retrofits, pushing out quirky microbusinesses and forcing the town to accept national chain stores, which could afford costlier leases.

By agreement with property owners and engineers, city manager Dick Wilson approved the demolition of 34 commercial buildings. One, the Cooper House, sparked an angry backlash from historic preservationists. An old county courthouse, it had been renovated to house shops, offices and a sprawling sidewalk cafe, and was the social and cultural heart of the town.

"It's physically painful to even have this discussion for me," Mr Wilson admits. In the end, the need to clear hazardous buildings to reopen cordoned areas, and to rebuild quickly, trumped all other considerations.

The first redevelopment priority was reopening existing businesses so locals didn't abandon the town centre altogether. Speed was imperative - the year's busiest shopping day, the day after Thanksgiving, was only six weeks away.

The city suggested temporarily housing the shops in huge marquees, so officials and volunteer union workers put up nine pavilions in car parks and cleared lots. And the town's retailers, including the bookshop, began moving in.

Mr Coonerty recalls shining his car lights into the 15m by 30m tent so staff could shelve books at night. He used the community book sale funds to install lighting and a flat floor in the quaintly renamed Book Tent Santa Cruz.

Other businesses improvised. Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting owner Bronson Baker, despite losing two staff, his biggest store and the US$70,000 roaster they'd just bought, never really considered abandoning the business. He moved the roasting work to his garage for three months before a friend offered a rent-free building outside the downtown area. Another store provided some cashflow, and he qualified for a cheap (4 per cent) loan from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. To retrieve financial records he snuck through the cordon into a next-door bank and shimmied down ropes into the roasting building.

Meanwhile, the city wondered what, and how, to rebuild. The university organised a 10-week lecture series, with architecture, engineering and planning experts discussing what made a great downtown.

A school gym was set up with tables of eight for a three-day design symposium. Santa Cruz locals discussed, drew and then presented their central city concept. One group wanted a little Venice, with canals instead of streets.

"That [the symposium] was a brilliant idea," says Pacific Cookie Company owner Larry Pearson, who lost his Pacific Ave flagship store and doughmaking facility in the quake. "It allowed everybody an outlet for all these feelings they had. People were just pent up with very strong opinions, because people cared so much. People got to see their ideas actually represented, and to see people's reactions to them."

Finding a consensus was always going to be challenging in a polarised, politically charged university city. As mayor Mardi Wormhoudt later conceded, they had been awfully good at stopping development - but now having to facilitate it was terrifying.

It was clear new rules were needed to encourage developers and investors. Instead of a snakes-and-ladders process of endless hearings, appeals and environmental reviews, investors needed definitive approval upfront.

"The most important thing we did was have a different kind of planning process than ever before. We knew that permits had to be issued for all these buildings with no uncertainty or risk for the investors," Mr Eadie says.

To give direction to the redevelopment, a steering group was appointed, with 18 city council appointees and 18 from the chamber of commerce. It was a running joke that it took 36 people who hated each other two months to even agree on a name. Mr Pearson insists it was more like two weeks before they settled on Vision Santa Cruz (VSC).

He and Mr Coonerty were two of the business owners who, in addition to working furiously to save their businesses, met at least twice a week for three years to decide street width, building height anddesign, tree types and sun angles.

They took field trips to test which benches were comfortable enough to sit on, but not conducive to sleeping.

In May 1990, VSC presented its "First Principles" - the broad vision for the city. There was pressure to wind up the organisation at that point, as politicos worried they were losing their influence. But VSC fought to remain. It then crafted a recovery plan, adopted in September 1991, including detailed design guidelines.

While not specifying architectural style, new buildings had to incorporate beloved elements of the lost historic buildings. Any new construction had to be at least two storeys, to maintain urban density and ensure mixed use, with apartments and offices above the first-floor shops. Higher structures had to be stepped back to protect street-level sun.

The plan meant any proposed new building conforming to the design guidelines could then be approved immediately, instead of going through an involved permit and review process.

At the same time, the Santa Cruz Redevelopment Agency worked behind the scenes to recruit developers and find funding. The agency built a parking building just off Pacific Ave as a sign the city remained committed to the downtown area.

In February 1990, four months after the quake, Mr Wilson recruited South California redevelopment veteran Ceil Cirillo to lead the agency. It was her idea to bring in a nine-screen movie theatre, which proved critical in bringing the city back to life at night.

She was also given the task of dealing with those displaced from damaged downtown hotels, which housed mostly the poor and elderly living on week-by-week rents. They were evacuated first to camp beds in the Civic Center, then to motels and campervans, while downtown accommodation was slowly rebuilt.

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WHO'S GOING TO PAY?

Finance was a massive problem, with most recession-hit banks having no-lending policies and developers forced to find money from multiple sources. The locally owned Coast Commercial Bank offered loans to loyal customers who were financially sound pre-quake. But it said no to others.

"There is attrition," bank president Harvey Nickelson concedes.

The upside was that financing delays gave the city time to plan properly.

Infrastructure improvements were funded largely by federal aid. But money was a slow trickle - the agency got its final payment six years later - and they would only replace exactly what was there previously. To fund modernisation, Santa Cruz introduced a countywide 1/2-cent sales tax, which reaped $20m over six years.

Another serious impediment to speedy redevelopment was the fact most owners of demolished buildings had no experience navigating the complex net of financing, engineering and government approval that goes with development.

Nowhere is that more obvious than on the site of Mr Coonerty's old bookshop, at the top of Pacific Ave.

It should have been the first hole filled - the landlord was one of only two with quake insurance and his tenants were eager to move back in. Instead, 22 years on, it's the only lot still vacant.

Some owners entered into joint ventures with developers like construction magnate Barry Swenson, who developed 15 Santa Cruz properties, including the County Bank, whose facade was braced while a new building was constructed behind.

Mr Swenson often spends winters in New Zealand, and owns several properties here, including Rangiora's earthquake-damaged Red Lion Hotel. "That will have to come down," he says with the collected cool that presumably allows him to shoulder financial risks most run from. Asked how he secured funding for so many projects, he says simply: "We just worked really hard."

The mandatory seismic retrofits of damaged buildings raised difficulties. The damaged eight-storey reinforced-concrete Palomar Hotel was one of the town's most imposing buildings. It fell short of current steel reinforcing requirements, but to require an upgrade to 1986 building code levels would have tipped the economic balance in favour of tearing it down. Instead, the city decided it could be repaired to 1972 standards.

Rents inevitably rose to cover the construction to more stringent seismic codes, and the mandatory strengthening of damaged properties. To compensate, the retail day was extended, and many businesses found they had to expand to survive.

Slowly buildings began to go up instead of down in Pacific Ave. It took more than a year to replace utilities and begin the streetscape. At first, there was more activity in the makeshift tents than on the main street.

By the third year, the pavilions' novelty had well worn off. They were freezing on cold days, stifling in summer. And customers were drifting away. Mr Coonerty sold off all his used books to cover losses in that third year. He eventually moved into a huge new Pacific Ave store in November 1992.

The downtown officially reopened in 1993.

Mr Baker soon returned to serve coffee downtown again, in the strengthened Palomar building, having relocated his roasting business to cheaper Watsonville. The Pacific Cookie Company also opened a new Pacific Ave shop.

Double the pre-quake commercial space was eventually built in downtown Santa Cruz. The tide really turned in 1995, when the nine-theatre cinema moved in, bringing with it families and millions in entertainment ticket taxes.

For all the effort, and 300-plus meetings, involved in transforming a city centre in the midst of an economic disaster, those involved look back fondly on the experience. Mr Pearson rates his time on Vision Santa Cruz as the highlight of his professional career.

"The brilliance of it was that everyone had a chance to see their ideas hashed out and the community had ownership of what finally resulted. Los Gatos and Watsonville just recreated what was there. The real brilliance was not doing that."

Renowned urban planner Boris Dramov, of San Francisco's Roma Design, which also designed Auckland's Viaduct Harbour, helped fashion the streetscape. As an outsider, he believes the process of reshaping the city brought the community together in a way that simply rebuilding would never have done.

"That new vision helped them deal with the trauma and the loss. It's a healing process."

John Talbot never did have that drink. He went to counselling instead, where they showed him the forensic photo of how Ms Ortiz's body was found, to end the awful visualisations of a slow death. It was four years before he stopped fearing another killer earthquake.

"Every time there was an aftershock, it scared me. When you're a kid you're Superman and you don't think anything can hurt you. It was at that point in my life I was forced to grow up and realise that life is not forever."

He continued working for Mr Baker for several months, driving coffee to San Francisco for roasting. But in the end he needed to get away so he went to Hawaii for a holiday and stayed. He returned to Santa Cruz 12 years ago, when his father became ill.

He never lost his passion for baseball either. It's 4pm on Monday and Mr Talbot is pacing the diamond at Aptos High School, where he's drilling his team on base running. At 1.98 metres (6ft 6in) tall he's unmissable, joking around and geeing up the kids. He's here every day from 3pm till 5pm, after finishing at Bobby's Pit Stop auto repairs in Santa Cruz, where he's general manager.

After practice the kids trickle off: "See ya, coach". The team's strapping young pitcher wanders over. "This is my son Jordan," Mr Talbot beams. He's just won a baseball scholarship to study at nearby Santa Clara University.

They sit together on the spectator stand. Jordan tries to look taller than his dad. Mr Talbot is happy and relaxed. Recovered.

With thanks to the people of Santa Cruz and the Santa Cruz Sentinel, for use of its historic images.

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THE FACE OF SANTA CRUZ'S QUAKE

The defining image of Santa Cruz's earthquake was the blood-spattered face of Ford's department store assistant Edith Dominguez, being dragged from the rubble, trailing a barely attached foot. The elderly woman she was serving was crushed to death.

Son Michael Dominguez was kitting up for tennis when the quake struck. It wasn't till three hours later that he tracked down his mother in hospital.

She couldn't talk, but there was no mistaking the meaning of her hand squeeze when he told her the doctors wanted to amputate her damaged leg.

They saved her leg, but she spent three months in hospital and always had to walk with a cane.

She had recently left her husband after 43 years but the earthquake brought them closer together. He would visit daily and paid for an extra room to be built on to Michael's brother's house.

With the money from her injury settlement, Mrs Dominguez bought a comfortable condominium to replace her poky apartment.

She was never quite the same, but there were small comforts, Michael Dominguez says.

"We had a nice little Christmas in the hospital, my mum enjoyed that. Her joy was her grandkids.

"We put her on a plane to San Diego in a wheelchair to see my daughter [Michele, 45] graduate. She got to go to Stanford [University] to see my son [John, 39] graduate. She got to see Michele get married."

Edith Dominguez died of cancer in 1995.

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PICKING UP AND GETTING ON WITH LIFE

Others had a more complete recovery. When psychotherapist Elene Johas Teener's evening group arrived just after the earthquake, they were expecting to process the experience. But Ms Johas Teener, 57, was in no position to be disseminating calm.

She was at her Aptos home with a client when the tremor  centred about 2km away  popped the skylights, cleaved the house in two and jammed a fence against the front door.

"I can still hear the house creak and the beams moaning and twisting. My client was first of all silent and then couldn't stop screaming. I was in acute shock."

She spent the first night in the car, freaking out with every aftershock. The next night she gathered her cats and parked her small RV in the Safeway carpark  where she slept along with 300 other frightened self-evacuees. It was a week before she could face the destruction at home.

"The building was like somebody put stuff in a blender and flung it out all over the room: beds, dressers, sidetables, lamps, rocking chairs. Everything just helter-skelter everywhere.

"You're almost catatonic. There's so much to do you can't do anything."

Her neighbour helped her clear up. Then left town for good.

By some miracle, Ms Johas Teener had ordered earthquake insurance just nine days earlier. She hadn't even paid for the policy, but the company honoured the agreement.

She received $90,000 to strip the house to its skeleton, put in shear walls and continuous beams and bolt the structure to the foundation.

She made the kitchen useable and camped in one bedroom for 10 months. She had only just remodelled the house to add an office, but had to move her practice to a one-storey office building while the repairs continued.

With every aftershock, the fear returned. She learned to measure magnitude by the groan of the beams, the noise of air rushing under the door.

"It took me years to not be scared when the bus drives by and the door rattles. I think the community healed by talking about it a lot."

Ms Johas Teener has since moved several times. Every time she's paid out US$5000 to $10,000 to strengthen the house. The latest is a gorgeous wooden bungalow in leafy suburban Santa Cruz, where she lives with her husband and sons Noah, 15 and Ben, 11, dog Cody and countless cats.

It was a rough track back to normality  it was five years before she went to San Francisco, because she was afraid to cross bridges or drive under freeways. But her message to the people of Canterbury is that the fear does fade.

"I was a nervous wreck for a long time. But it did get incrementally better all the time. You started to feel safe even when there were aftershocks. You started to feel some sort of control. It was the out-of-control feeling that was outrageous."

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SANTA CRUZ REDEVELOPMENT TIMELINE

October 17, 1989: Loma Prieta earthquake hits at 5.04pm. It was initially measured at 7.1 on the Richter scale, but later downgraded to 6.9. The quake was centred near Loma Prieta peak in the Santa Cruz mountains, 14km northeast of Santa Cruz city.

November 24, 1989: Santa Cruz puts up nine tent pavilions to keep 25 central city businesses going during Thanksgiving holiday season. The tents remained for three years. The district lost 206 businesses because of the quake.

December 1989: City establishes Vision Santa Cruz (VSC), a committee of residents, civic and business leaders, to develop a new vision for the central city area.

May 1990: VSC's First Principles planning vision adopted by city council.

November 1990: Santa Cruz County voters approve Measure E, introducing a half-cent sales tax increase. It raises more than $20 million over six years for earthquake recovery.

September 1991: City council adopts VSC's detailed Downtown Recovery Plan and streetscape concept.

By September 1992: 34 pre-quake businesses had reopened downtown, 49 new businesses had set up downtown and 13 businesses remained in the pavilions. Six buildings had been repaired, three completely rebuilt, and seven were under construction or renovation.

November 1992: Last of the merchants leave the tent pavilions. The new St George Hotel and Locust St parking garage open.

1993: Pacific Ave reopens. By 1994, 147 new post-quake businesses have opened downtown.

1995: Nine-screen movie theatre opens on site of the former Gottschalks department store in Pacific Ave, returning life to the downtown area at night.

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COMPARING LOMA PRIETA WITH CHRISTCHURCH

Santa Cruz Loma Prieta: October 17, 1989: 6.9 earthquake struck at 5.04pm

* Six people died, including three in the historic Santa Cruz downtown, and 671 were injured.

* 34 commercial buildings, comprising 35,000 square metres, were demolished. In the past two decades, more than double that lost area has been built.

* Damage estimated at US$433 million - 13,329 private homes were damaged and 774 destroyed; 1615 businesses were damaged and 310 destroyed.

* Unemployment claims spiked from less than 500 to about 2750 after the earthquake, but fell to normal levels by February 1990.

* House prices fell 28 per cent in December 1989, but quickly bounced back.

Christchurch: February 22, 2011: 6.3 earthquake struck at 12.51pm

* 181 people confirmed dead, with 172 formally identified.

* So far, 241 Christchurch buildings approved for total demolition.

* 10,000 homes expected to be torn down. The Earthquake Commission received 156,935 damage claims after the September 4 quake, and has so far received a further 119,295 claims resulting from the February quake.

* 60,000 Canterbury workers have received temporary government help, with fears up to 20,000 could end up on the unemployment benefit.

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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