My last two weeks of the summer (after a very nice summer and some wonderful time with my children) have not been peaceful or easy. The loss of a close friend, that I mentioned to you, and a few other bumps, have made the last of August more like real life than the end of summer.
Almost two years ago, one of my daughters who live in New York lost her apartment and belongings to Hurricane Sandy. She lived in a ground floor apartment she loved and had fixed beautifully, and living right on the River, her building was hit hard, her street was flooded, and her apartment was engulfed in river and sewer water when Hurricane Sandy hit lower Manhattan. What I saw there at the time was overwhelming, and my daughter’s losses heartbreaking. I had never seen first-hand before the aftermath of a hurricane and the resulting floods. It was devastating, and profoundly shocking. And in l989, we lived through the 6.9 earthquake in San Francisco. We did not experience much damage in our home, but the quake itself was terrifying.
As I told you in my last blog, I went to Las Vegas with friends and their children last week, had a great time and came home, and hours later was woken out of a sound sleep, as my bed shook violently and woke me up. It took me a few instants to realize that it was an earthquake and not a bad dream. And living in San Francisco, we are allegedly prepared for that to happen, but after a while, you start to assume it never will. You get complacent, and then suddenly a good shake wakes you up and scares you, and you are sharply reminded that you live in earthquake country, which is a serious matter, and we should always be prepared for what can happen.
The epicenter of the quake was within 5 miles of my children’s country home in the Napa Valley, and within seconds after it stopped, I got a call from my son, who sounded shaken and reported on the quake. It had lasted twenty seconds, which doesn’t seem long, but when you’re living it, on nature’s very own roller coaster, and scary ride, it feels like an eternity. In my home in the city, 50 miles away, my dogs were barking frantically and continued to do so for an hour, until an aftershock, and then they stopped. The actual quake had been 6.1, which is a very strong earthquake, enough so to do considerable damage. Objects in homes and stores were broken, people were injured, homes were damaged, roads were broken and closed, water was cut off, phone service was not working, and California was rapidly declared in a state of emergency. The highway to Napa was closed for most of the day, so I decided to wait until Monday morning to visit my children’s home. My other children were away and anxious about the extent of the damage, and I had promised to go up there. My son had already warned us that it seemed very extensive to him.
One thing I learned in the ’89 quake is how erratic earthquake damage can be. A tiny fragile object is unharmed, and another one 10 inches away or less is smashed to smithereens. There is no predicting what will be damaged and what wont. I left for my children’s Napa home early on Monday morning to evaluate the damage for them. There are several structures on the property, which is an old farm/ranch, built in 1857, and most of the buildings had been unaffected, another had very minor breakage in the house, but my son had already warned me that the main house on the property was severely damaged. Even knowing that, I was not prepared for what I found when we opened the door to the main house on their property. I brought several men with me to help, and we all stood awestruck for a moment. It looked like a bomb had exploded in a war zone. We entered through the kitchen which was a shambles. Dish cupboards had opened and poured their contents out, mountains of broken glasses and plates were on the floor, decorative objects were in a heap of broken pieces, wine bottles had fallen and smashed pouring wine over the floor. There were literally mountains of debris, light fixtures were broken, it looked like a sea of broken glass, the windows were broken, and two tall antique cabinets with glass doors filled with fragile objects had sailed toward each other, and crashed to the floor, face down. When we pulled them upright, the glass doors were not broken, and not a single fragile item in them had broken, yet everything else in the room appeared to be smashed. It is the strange selective process of earthquakes as to what breaks and what doesn’t, and makes no sense. Three crockery canisters sat on the counter, two unharmed, and the one between them smashed to smithereens. My heart was aching for my kids and the home they love and where they spent much of their childhood in this quaint old cluster of farmhouses, and which they work hard to take care of now. It was built in 1857, so it is old and needs loving care, which they provide. From the kitchen, we made our way into the dining room, a closet had poured out their best dishes and glasses, all family things that have great sentimental value to them, and had smashed to bits. Another cupboard had opened with wine and alcohol, which had broken and had poured the contents into my grandmother’s Persian carpet. The living room and den had that same post nuclear explosion look, with upended furniture, broken art objects, and everything broken on the floor, and displaced. Things had flown all over the room. In the den, the sheet rock on one wall had buckled and torn jaggedly, and the same thing had happened in the stairs and in addition a broken banister. Marble columns had broken, and repeatedly if there was a pair of anything, one had broken and one hadn’t. Mirrors were intact, while lamps and other objects were destroyed. The two bedrooms and office were a heap of rubble and a mess.
Trying to decide where to start was a tough choice. We photographed everything before we started, and outside, marble statues had broken (one had lost its head and we never found it though we searched the bushes, a small stone statue of a little girl had her head sitting by her feet, but the matching little boy statue was unharmed. A pair of angel statues near the front door were victims of the same random selection process too, one was intact and the other broken.) Ceramic pots had broken, plants were overturned, an antique rocking horse from their childhood had broken off its base and lay on its side, and tables were overturned. And all of this had happened in a mere 20 seconds. It was hard to believe. Taking the time to photograph it gave us time to develop a strategy. We had worn heavy boots, heavy work gloves, and brought hard hats in case we needed them, and a host of tools. In the end, we started where we entered, in the kitchen, and started shoveling broken plates and glasses into huge garbage cans. Through the day, we set up a long table outside where we put objects that looked like they could be glued back together, many just had to be thrown away and were nothing more than slivers and dust. There were a lot of losses and some victories too. Once we threw the irreparable things away, and put the things to repair on the table, removed the wine soaked carpet, and vacuumed up the little bits of glass and china (with an industrial vacuum cleaner—-we still had no water or phone service, but the electricity came on), then we put things back in place and filled in the gaps. We went from room to room, and never stopped, we tidied up the porch and the grounds as best we could, and 8 hours after we’d arrived, with 9 of us working nonstop as a team, the house looked like a home again, with familiar objects that had survived, and no sign of debris. The only glaringly obvious ‘injuries’ were the 12 broken windows and the two walls where the sheet rock had ruptured and torn. I had made an inventory of everything that had been damaged or lost, but it was still shocking to see it, and imagine the force with which the earthquake had hit the house. Twenty seconds had turned the contents of the house upside down, and shattered a lifetime of family treasures. In the end, they are only ‘things’ and the real blessing was that no one in the house was hurt or killed. The house was standing, and it actually looked pretty good when we left for the night. There is still work to be done, windows to replace, walls to repair, things we are still gluing, or trying to find or hope to replace. And as I left to go back to the city, I was so grateful for the people who had helped me, the closeness of my children, and that I was there to do whatever I could for them, to help them clean up and restore the home they love and share. I’m glad that I was in San Francisco to do it. It was a poignant experience as I saw familiar objects of mine or their father’s, or souvenirs of our days together, some of which survived, and others that were smashed. This family home that meant so much to us, and belongs to the kids now had survived the earthquake, and as tired as I was when I left, I was grateful that I was able to do what I could to help. And as I drove home, I thought again of the kind of ravaging damage Nature can do in a matter of seconds. It was a sobering experience, and I was left with immense gratitude for what we had saved, and the love that home still represents. It actually looked pretty again when I left, and not the disaster it was when we arrived. I felt very blessed.