The Cooper House

Sam Lovett

It’s been over 26 years since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and yet I still can hardly look at a photo of the Cooper House without getting a little emotional. I was there that day, in the weeks following the earthquake, when they brought it down with a wrecking ball and bulldozers. That day, tears flowed down the cheeks of many of the Santa Cruzans who had gathered to say their goodbyes to the grand old building, which had stood on the corner of Pacific Avenue and Cooper Street since 1894.

To this day, there are those who contend that the Cooper House didn’t have to be demolished, that the earthquake hadn’t truly damaged it completely beyond repair, as had been reported, and that it actually could’ve been saved. God knows there were no shortage of people who wanted to save it. Talk to anyone who spent any time at all in downtown Santa Cruz during the Cooper House years, and they will all no doubt have a story or two about good times spent there.

My earliest memory of the place dates back to the mid 60’s when I went there with my grandmother. I was about 7. Of course, in those days it wasn’t known as the Cooper House. It was still the Santa Cruz County Courthouse.

Many people mistakenly call the Loma Prieta quake the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. The epicenter of the earthquake, however, was actually in the redwood forest of Nicene Marks State Park in Santa Cruz County, roughly 80 miles south of San Francisco, and less than 10 miles from where I lived at the time, in the Live Oak area of Santa Cruz.

I was still working in radio back then, and, along with Eddie Hudson, was doing news for radio station KSCO, which was the official emergency broadcast network station for the Monterey Bay. We practically lived at the station for the next week, and at least one of us was on the air disseminating information round the clock.

I was never more proud to be a Santa Cruz native than I was in the week or so following the earthquake. People came together to help each other in a way I had never seen. Santa Cruz felt like more of a community than ever. So many people doing everything they could to be of service to others. But, as so often happens in times following such natural disasters, that beautiful collective of community spirit soon dissipated.

The memories of the of the quake itself and the days which followed, however, especially the day we all had to say goodbye to the Cooper House, will likely never really dissipate completely for anyone who was there. I know they certainly won’t for me.

Cabrillo Highway

Emy S

I was riding in a mini-school bus (really just a van) with about 6 other students on the way back to Santa Cruz from Monterey, where I was attending 9th grade at York school. Suddenly, it felt like we were being blown all around the highway!

We stopped in the middle of the highway: I think we were somewhere around Watsonville by then. No one was around, and it appeared like the asphalt was rippling like a carpet that was being shaken from one end and WE WERE STANDING ON IT! It was kinda like surfing…that was just one of the aftershocks.

None of us really knew what to think about it, even the teacher who was driving. We were all kind of speechless and dumbfounded, but eventually the bus continued on so that we could be dropped off at our respective “bus stops.” Mine was in the Kmart parking lot.

I decided to walk home (which ended up making my mom really mad) like I normally did, and saw many curious sights along the way. Like the tile store that I passed everyday on my way home– it had tiles all strewn about everywhere. And the businesses seemed to be closed. And I noticed several chimneys and parts of buildings that had crumbled.

The whole thing seemed really weird, and I know it sounds impossible, but I didn’t really put it all together what a big deal it was. I still hadn’t heard the radio or any reports of how serious the damage was. I continued to be shocked when I came in my front door and saw the floor covered in cereal and broken dishes. I spent some time outside with the neighbors before my mom came home: she seemed really stressed out. I couldn’t really figure out why, except maybe that she was mad that I hadn’t waited for her at Kmart.

In the next days I remember listening to the radio, camping in the backyard and eating melted ice cream at the grocery store…it was all pretty exciting. Next I remember that downtown Santa Cruz had to move inside of tents and it was actually like that for quite awhile…like years!

Redwood Estates

Redwood Estates

Laura Winter

My husband and I were both home that afternoon, as we had met with our realtor earlier after having recently made an offer on a house on the other side of the summit off of Laurel Road. We lived in “Downtown” Redwood Estates, right across the street from the grocery store and post office on Broadway.

redwood estates 1989

We were watching the baseball game on TV when it hit, and although we tried to get outside, we were repeatedly slammed to the ground. Longest 15 seconds ever; this was seriously violent shaking, especially as this was only 10 miles from the epicenter. I have never felt so helpless in my entire life. We lost every piece of glass we owned, but we were so fortunate. Our neighbor’s house burned to the ground and many houses there were uninhabitable afterwards. My in-laws had major structural damage and had three huge aquariums explode and flood the inside of their house next door to ours.

The next seven days were surreal; it was like living in a third world country: no power, no running water. Food wasn’t a problem, though. All the neighbors joined together to bring the food from the refrigerators & freezers and our grills to cook for the entire community. We really took care of each other in the aftermath. It didn’t matter if you had never met a particular neighbor before, if someone had a need, we made sure to fill it.

The national guard was sent up with canvas trailers of water we could use to flush our toilets and a tent for showers. The entire community was stuck up there as the CHP held a community meeting the next day: they told us we’d be arrested if we drove on Highway 17 if it wasn’t an emergency, as Caltrans had to assess the condition of the road.

None of the Santa Cruz Mountains communities had water for the next 4 months. Our antiquated water systems literally crumbled to bits.

About that house we were trying to buy…2 days after the quake, the Mercury News somehow managed to get the newspaper up to us. There was a color photograph on the front page of a home that had split into two with one half down in a ravine. I still remember the address: 24085 Schulties Road. It was the house we had fallen in love with, destroyed. The sellers had no insurance and they had to demolish.

No bank would lend for mountain property for a long time after that, so we had no choice but to head to the flatlands of San Jose, where we live in another neighborhood where people look after each other.

I still miss the beauty of the Santa Cruz mountains, but each earthquake we’ve had since then, I become unglued.

Highway 17

Jamie Batt

I was on the bus heading home after a day of school at Los Gatos High…we were about halfway up Hwy 17 when I noticed that something was amiss. I gazed out the bus window with a growing sense of confusion: the trees on the hillside to the right of the bus were swaying wildly- I couldn’t remember any wind that day, I looked out the left window and the confusion turned to awe and fright very quickly.

The cars on the other side of the road were rolling, and the center divide was cracking before my eyes. This is when I realized that the motion of the bus was not at all normal. The other kids on the bus were exclaiming and moving chaotically from one window to the next trying to figure out what was going on…the bus driver had stopped the bus but it was still moving, she kept telling us to stay calm and that everything would be OK.

Once the rolling stopped- the bus driver decided that she had to get us all to our bus stops and safely home…so up we went. The hardest area to traverse was on Summit Road where a giant fissure had opened up- but that bus driver was able to maneuver us safely around it and to the last stop.

When I made it home, everything in the house was on the floor: the wooden legs of my bed had scratched circles into the wood floor from the motion of the quake. I will never forget how out of control everything felt- or how small and insignificant I felt…nature at its scariest.

Downtown Santa Cruz was never the same after the quake. Some of my favorite old buildings were now blocks of rubble behind chain link fences…the buildings that eventually went up to take their place have no soul- no sense of history and time…I walk down the Pacific Garden Mall now, I don’t think it is even called that any more, and see everything that is missing…shadows of the past, and I feel an overwhelming sense of not right-ness.

I don’t visit Santa Cruz much any more. It just isn’t the same.

Downtown Santa Cruz

Fern Selzer

I was in my downtown office in Santa Cruz and my client was in the waiting room when the earthquake hit. I’ve been through a lot of earthquakes, but this time it was like being on a bucking horse. I had to hang on the doorjamb just to keep from falling down. My client was in another doorway in another room and we yelled back and forth to each other as the earthquake was going on. Absolutely everything in shelves or on the wall went flying through the air.

Then there were a lot of people running and yelling in the streets and someone who had been in the Acapulco restaurant a few blocks away said the ceiling fell in and that people were seriously injured on Pacific Avenue.

I didn’t know where my daughter was exactly, as she was carpooling home from high school. So I wanted to get to her ASAP. When I went outside to my car, the whole sky was full of what looked like smoke, but I found out later it was dust from the buildings that had collapsed. I got in my car and had to get across the San Lorenzo River to get to Capitola. The bridge had a big crack in it, probably about six inches wide all the way across the bridge and the cars were stopped. I felt frantic to get to my daughter so I just passed the stopped cars and drove over the crack. Fortunately my car made it without getting one of the tires stuck in the opening.

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The streets were jammed, but I kept taking back roads and worked my way to the carpool pick up spot. I was a bit panicked when I found that my daughter wasn’t where she was supposed to be, but I drove home, nearby, and she had walked home. She was standing out in the street with the neighbors, who were all staying outside because of the aftershocks.

My daughter and I drove to a nearby park to use the pay phone. There were a number of young men playing basketball as if it was a regular day, so it was peaceful there.

I couldn’t get through by telephone, so about an hour later I came back to Santa Cruz to check on my mother and grandmother. By then I had heard on the radio which bridge was open. The air in Santa Cruz smelled like natural gas. When I came to my mother’s house, the door was wide open and they weren’t there, so I was afraid one of them was injured but I didn’t know where to look or what to do so I went back home. There was so much chaos, damage and injury around that it was really frightening not to know how your friends and family had been affected. It would have been much less scary with cell phones. But some of the landlines worked and later messages got through and we all found out that everyone in the family was okay.

That night we slept out in the back yard because of the aftershocks. We listened a lot to the local KSCO and KGO radio and heard about what was going on through the newscasts and talk radio.

There was no gas or electricity for a few days. All the schools and businesses were closed, so it was kind of a holiday atmosphere, though a gloomy one, like when JFK was shot, because everything stopped and people were sociable and not in a hurry. Of course, that was not the case for those who had any major damage or injury and for emergency workers.

When I think back now, I see that, during that whole experience, what was really important to me was getting in communication with people that I cared about.

Grad Housing

Melinda de Jesus

I had just moved from Pennsylvania to do my PhD at UC Santa Cruz. On my arrival at SJO, Prof. Mary Kay Gamel, whom I stayed with as I searched for housing, told me to stand in a doorway should an earthquake hit. She said I’d never forget that tip as it was shared at my very first moment in NorCal.

Three weeks later, I found myself in the doorway of UCSC grad housing, clinging for dear life. I remember thinking, “How do people live like this?” as I assumed the Loma Prieta was merely an everyday kind of earthquake. Lol. I also thought I’d never finish my lit degree, would have to leave CA altogether…And there I was last week, in the doorway of my Oakland bungalow, riding out the Napa 6.0!…

UC Santa Cruz

Don Gates

The earthquake was on my 20th birthday, and I was attending UC Santa Cruz at the time, a few miles from the epicenter. We were in one of the biggest classrooms on campus, watching “2001: A Space Odyssey,” when it struck. Ran outside to see massive redwoods swaying like palm trees. Later that night, a few hundred people sang me happy birthday, all of us having been steered onto a local field and away from the rattled apartments where we lived. Alas, there was not enough cake to go around.

don's birthday cake