The Hardest Job
30 Years Later, the Loma Prieta Earthquake Response Remains Jim Aldrich’s Most Difficult
Galveston Island had seen better days. Hurricane Jerry had battered the Texas barrier island cum tourist haunt the day before, leaving flooded roads strewn with flotsam and sand dunes pummeled into the mud. Jim Aldrich of the American Red Cross, who was in Galveston as part of the organization’s recovery effort, had just settled in to watch Game 3 of the World Series from his hotel room. The game’s telecast, aired live from San Francisco, suddenly scratched with static as the frame jerked and spasmed. There was confusion, shouting.
“We’re having an earth-” someone said before the live feed cut to black.
It was October 17, 1989, and Northern California had just experienced a catastrophic event, the Loma Prieta earthquake. The 6.9 tremor ravaged homes, infrastructure, and lives from Monterey Bay through the Bay Area, leaving 66 people dead, thousands injured, and tens of thousands homeless. Like Jim, millions watched the quake strike in real time on live television.
The Red Cross contacted Jim, an employee from St. Louis, within hours of the now-cancelled World Series game; he would trade the Texas Gulf Coast for a new deployment to the earthquake response in California. Having 8+ years with the Red Cross and ample disaster experience under his belt, he felt up to the job. However, as he would learn over the next three months, the Loma Prieta response would be the most challenging of his career.
“Loma Prieta was one of those experiences where we encountered new things and expansions on the things we already knew: more damage, more death, more shelters,” he said.
The Red Cross launched a mammoth recovery effort in California. More than 7,800 Red Cross workers opened 45 shelters to house nearly 65,000 people; 750,000 pounds of blankets, food, and clothing were distributed to affected residents; nearly 643,000 meals and snacks were served in shelters and distributed from mobile feeding vans. Few Red Cross efforts before or since have rivaled its scope.
Once on the ground in California, Jim was assigned to Oakland. Among the many hats he wore on the job, Jim was primarily responsible for documenting the scale of the Red Cross response: number of clients in shelters, meals served, supply inventories, etc.
“It took a few days before I was able to get out and see the damage,” he said. “The Cypress Structure was pretty sobering. I have much respect for the Mass Care and Damage Assessment teams who were out on the street every day.”
Oakland suffered the deadliest of the damage. A bi-level section of Interstate 880, known locally as the Cypress Structure, was built atop filled wetland. The quake’s shaking rendered the muddy soil unstable and loose, a process called liquefaction, which amplified the force of the quake’s violence. The top deck crashed onto the lower deck along a 1.2-mile section of the highway, killing 42 and injuring many others. Some were trapped in their crushed cars for days.
Disasters often hone a community’s — and the nation’s — ability to come together. That was certainly the case with Loma Prieta, and Jim was witness to people repeatedly moved to do something, anything, to help those in need. Notable among those givers were the Red Cross volunteers.
“The Bay Area Red Cross chapter had a group of really committed volunteers,” he said. “They were used to responding to incidents like house fires, so they had to shift into a higher gear for Loma Prieta. Meeting those folks was a highlight of my experience there.”
But the influx of nonlocal volunteers who deployed to the area for Loma Prieta – nearly 94 percent of the Red Cross workforce – were newcomers, having deployed from regions throughout the country. As a Midwesterner who called Missouri home, Jim was new, too.
“I felt like an outsider sent to someone’s backyard to ‘save the day,’” he recalled. “My strategy was to make friends.”
That was not without challenges, as the Red Cross workforce — predominantly white — was serving a community in Oakland comprised largely of African Americans. One day while Jim was in the Red Cross office in the city, an unlikely group of visitors walked through the door.
“I got to meet the Black Panthers,” he said, referring to the political group founded in Oakland in 1966. “They came by the office to ensure that people were being treated fairly.”
For Jim, that experience taught him an important lesson about service. “An organization needs to be representative of the populations that it serves,” he said. “We must continue to learn the lessons from our work.”
Another takeaway from his time in Oakland was the value of working with other agencies, be they local nonprofits or local government.
“Casework and damage assessment were tough: it was hard to find addresses, match people to homes, verify identities,” he said, recalling a time when smartphones were nonexistent, and the Red Cross operated with an all-paper system in the field. “There was no way to cross-check clients between service centers,” he said.
Then one day, the Alameda County Director of Social Services and a small entourage came by his office, unannounced and armed with a proposition.
“She said ‘A lot of our clients are in your shelters. We can cross-reference your client database with ours and get our folks back on social services to help free up Red Cross resources.’”
The idea was music to Jim’s ears, but he first had to clear it with his supervisors. Unfortunately, they initially balked at the idea of sharing client information with a third party. But after much back and forth, a resolution emerged.
“I worked out an arrangement with Social Services and got those people help,” Jim said, adding “Disasters are tricky, and you have to be persistent to do what you need to do. And sometimes, it’s better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.”
Alameda County’s Director of Social Services not only continued to work with the Red Cross during Loma Prieta, she eventually served on the Board of the Bay Area Chapter. Such relationships, developed within a community during a crisis, can have lasting impact long after the dust has settled.
It’s a phenomenon that also occurred in Jim’s life. Following the three-month initial recovery phase after the earthquake, Jim transitioned to the Loma Prieta Long-Term Recovery project, which he supported until 1992. Having spent more than two years in the Bay Area by then, he decided to call California home for good and took the job of Director of Disaster Services for what was then the Golden Gate Chapter, which eventually merged into the Bay Area Chapter.
In 1999, Jim left the Red Cross to work for the City of San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management, reconnecting with some of the contacts he’d made during Loma Prieta. During his tenure he replaced the city’s emergency siren system and installed the beachfront Tsunami Warning signs seen across local waterfronts.
Now formally retired, Jim knows better than to rest on his laurels. He urges vigilance and action to always stay prepared.
“I’m a strong proponent of having a plan and sharing it with those around you,” he said. “Review it over and over – know it.”
He also recommends knowing who your neighbors are, getting Red Cross first aid/CPR training, and having an emergency kit – practical advice given that the next major disaster can happen any time. But, he adds that nurturing your community – and yourself – can be every bit as impactful and just as rewarding.
To learn more about the Loma Prieta earthquake, and how to prepare for a disaster, visit www.redcross.org/lomaprieta.