1989 earthquake was a life-changing moment for Red Cross’ Rick Martinez

Almost 30 years ago, on October 17, 1989, the devastating Loma Prieta Earthquake rocked most of Northern California. Particularly hard hit were Bay Area and Central Coast communities, areas that sustained loss of life and catastrophic damage. To commemorate the anniversary of this devastating earthquake, our region has been gathering stories from people who experienced Loma Prieta 30 years ago in an effort to encourage preparedness today. The following is a story that was posted on the Central Coast Chapter web site in December 2017.


Rick Martinez was photographed at the lifeguard station on the Santa Cruz Wharf in 2017, almost 30 years after the earthquake that introduced him to the American Red Cross.

By Jim Burns

Before he embarked on a career in law enforcement almost 30 years ago, Rick Martinez dreamed of working in the hospitality industry.

“I had been very interested in doing restaurant or hotel/motel work,” he said.

Then the fatally destructive Loma Prieta Earthquake struck with mega-force in October 1989.

“I was 20 years old and happened to be working for the city lifeguard service at the time. Because of that, when the quake happened, I was assigned to help with the recovery efforts in downtown Santa Cruz.”

Martinez deployed that first night of the quake — and for the next couple of weeks. “We were working 20-hour days,” he recalled.

By the time his deployment ended, Martinez had radically modified his career path.

“It was a real pinnacle moment for me,” he said. “That’s when I really decided to seriously consider public safety as a profession. I saw first-hand what public service really means.”

Loma Prieta Earthquake, 1989

A Red Cross worker conducts damage assessment in a Santa Cruz neighborhood after the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Now Deputy Chief of Police for the City of Santa Cruz, Martinez reflects on another life pivot that resulted from that long-ago quake deployment: The experience formally introduced him to the American Red Cross.

“As a teen, I had to go through a pretty substantial surgery, and back then, hospitals wanted you to donate your own blood in advance of the procedure,” he said. “So I had been in the Red Cross’ Santa Cruz office to donate blood a few years before the earthquake. I remember that the people there were fantastic; but before the quake, that had been the extent of my experience with the Red Cross.”

During the quake, however, Martinez saw an entirely new side of the Red Cross mission: Volunteers and employees — tirelessly and helpfully — provided ’round-the-clock support to the first responders who were working long shifts in downtown Santa Cruz.

“The Red Cross provided all of the food, water, and supplies that we needed during those weeks,” he said. “I came away pretty impressed.”

Still, life happened and Martinez’s interest in giving back to the Red Cross wouldn’t really take root for another 20 years. The relationship was rekindled by a phone call informing him that the local chapter had selected him to receive a Law Enforcement Hero Award for the efforts he had been making to improve public safety and bring together business owners and other stakeholders to improve the quality of Santa Cruz’s downtown area.

“The Red Cross found me,” he said. “And I am very glad they did.”

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Red Cross workers provide canteen services at a recovery site following Loma Prieta, serving food and drinks to construction workers repairing damage and clearing debris.

Shortly after that, Martinez joined the local chapter’s Board of Directors, providing important public-safety representation on the board. In that capacity, Martinez has served as board vice chair, chair of the board’s Executive Committee, member of the Heroes Committee, and — in 2014 — as chair of the board.

That was the same year that Martinez discovered yet another side of the Red Cross mission — the work the organization quietly does in support of members of the military and their families.

“The Red Cross was really there for a cousin of mine, an Air Force Pararescue Jumper stationed in Afghanistan,” he said. “Because of the Red Cross, he was able to fly home and spend time with his ill father before he died. For the Red Cross to do that with such efficiency, I was very thankful.”

The Red Cross extended its appreciation to Martinez this past spring when it honored him with the organization’s prestigious Clara Barton Award at the Central Coast Chapter’s annual Volunteer Recognition Event. The award, the highest the American Red Cross bestows on volunteers, recognizes meritorious service in volunteer leadership positions held over a period of years.

“I don’t consider myself worthy of this award considering how active so many of the other volunteers in the Central Coast Chapter are,” Martinez said modestly. But his modesty doesn’t mean he isn’t grateful — and extremely proud of the honor.

“I’ve witnessed first-hand the work that the Red Cross does in supporting the nation’s blood supply, in helping people recover from disasters, and in providing key support to our military families — and that’s just in my relatively-short association with the Red Cross,” he said. “I do feel undeserving of the award, but I am very honored to be selected to receive it.”