An earthquake hits the San Francisco Bay Area on October 17, 1989, killing 67 people and causing more than $5 billion in damages. Though this was one of the most powerful and destructive earthquakes ever to hit a populated area of the United States, the death toll could have been much worse.
The proximity of the San Andreas Fault to San Francisco was well-known for most of the 20th century, but the knowledge did not stop the construction of many un-reinforced brick buildings in the area. Finally, in 1972, revised building codes forced new structures to be built to withstand earthquakes. The new regulations also called for older buildings to be retrofitted to meet the new standards, but the expense involved made these projects a low priority for the community.
On October 17, the Bay Area was buzzing about baseball. The Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants, both local teams, had reached the World Series. The third game of the series was scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. Just prior to the game, with the cameras on the field, a 7.1-magnitude tremor centered near Loma Prieta Peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains rocked the region from Santa Cruz to Oakland. Though the stadium withstood the shaking, much of the rest of San Francisco was not so fortunate.
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The city’s marina district suffered great damage. Built before 1972, on an area of the city where there was no underlying bedrock, the liquefaction of the ground resulted in the collapse of many homes. Burst gas mains and pipes also sparked fires that burned out of control for nearly two days. Also hard hit by the quake were two area roads, the Nimitz Expressway and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
Both roads featured double-decker construction and, on each, the upper level collapsed during the earthquake. Forty-one of the 67 victims of this disaster were motorists on the lower level of the Nimitz, who were killed when the upper level of the road collapsed and crushed them in their cars. Only one person was killed on the Bay Bridge—which had been scheduled for a retrofitting the following week—because there were no cars under the section that collapsed.
Other heavily damaged communities included Watsonville, Daly City and Palo Alto. More than 10 percent of the homes in Watsonville were completely demolished. The residents, most of whom were Latino, faced additional hardship because relief workers and the Red Cross did not have enough Spanish-speaking aides or translators to assist them.
The earthquake caused billions of dollars in damages, and contributed in part to the deep recession that California suffered in the early 1990s.