Californians Count Blessings Amid Quake Losses

By William E. Homer, Julie Dockstader, and Kjirstin Youngberg

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    The San Francisco Bay Area was in something of a festive mood October 17, celebrating professional baseball’s World Series between the two local teams. But at 5:04 P.M., an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale cut the party short, putting thoughts of the San Francisco-Oakland World Series out of almost everyone’s mind.

    Nearly seventy people died as a result of the earthquake, including three Latter-day Saints. Thousands of people were left homeless, many Church members among them.

    The quake was centered in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco. Its hopscotch pattern of destruction seemed almost capricious. It spread northward, largely skipping over San Jose, but doing severe damage in San Francisco and Oakland. An upper-deck section of Oakland’s Nimitz Freeway collapsed onto the lower deck, crushing cars and the people in them. An upper-deck section of the Bay Bridge between Oakland and San Francisco also collapsed, and damage was extensive in San Francisco’s Marina district.

    Some of the most widespread damage occurred in Santa Cruz, Watsonville, Hollister, and other nearby areas. With property damage estimated in the billions, the earthquake has been labeled the most costly natural disaster in United States history.

    Damage to the Oakland Temple and other Church buildings, however, was minor, except for one meetinghouse in San Jose that was already scheduled for remodeling.

    As the rubble of the fallen freeway section in Oakland was removed, it was learned that John Lauritz, a Church member from San Francisco, and Jackie Easton, a member from Sacramento, had died in its collapse. Brother Lauritz had been recuperating from surgery at the Easton home, and Sister Easton had taken him to San Francisco for a doctor’s appointment. He was driving his own car for the first time after surgery, and she was following him when they drove onto the freeway just before the quake started.

    Church member Elida Ledesma Ortega, of the Pajaro First Ward, Santa Cruz California Stake, died of injuries received in the collapse of a bakery in Watsonville.

    Elder Gene R. Cook of the First Quorum of the Seventy, President of the Church’s North America West Area, toured the affected areas. He lauded the “great and optimistic spirit” of members there and expressed the love and support of Church leaders. “The priesthood and visiting teachers were terrific,” he said. “They were very well organized to respond to individual needs and quick to contact all their members.”

    Immediately after the earthquake subsided, members throughout the area turned to helping others, even though, in many cases, their own homes had been severely damaged or destroyed. Location of members and meeting of their immediate needs proceeded under priesthood direction. But Latter-day Saints also earned the gratitude of people throughout their communities. Missionaries, under the direction of their mission president, donated tens of thousands of hours of volunteer work.

    Members were also the recipients of selfless, Christlike service from non-LDS neighbors. Throughout the quake-torn areas, a spirit of helpfulness seemed to prevail.

    The Church’s welfare system rose to the occasion in meeting the short-term temporal needs of homeless Saints. Members of the Mercury Amateur Radio Association, the Church-affiliated organization of ham radio operators, were invaluable in local communication efforts, particularly in the Santa Cruz area. Latter-day Saints from outside affected areas donated labor, materials, and funds to help members who were left homeless or with homes badly damaged. There will be a continuing need to help individuals for some time, local priesthood leaders say, but the most useful way others will be able to help at this point is through fast-offering donations.

    For Latter-day Saints, the history of the quake and its after-effects is written largely in the experiences of individuals. Following are a few of their stories.

    SAN FRANCISCO—Max Hawes, his wife, Kelli, and their infant son, Derrick, live in Pacific Heights. From their window, they could see the smoke in the Marina district after the quake. Since members of their Golden Gate Ward lived in the area, Max packed a flashlight, gloves, and first-aid kit in a hip bag, took a ward directory and map, and walked down to the stricken area. Police let him into the area because he explained that he was looking for members of his church. Finding none of them at home, he joined rescue efforts, then helped at the Marina Middle School until 2:00 A.M.

    The following day, he and a friend joined the search for survivors and bodies. “What struck me while searching these buildings was the suddenness of it all,” he said. “Stereos and VCRs were being tossed aside. Money was lying in the open—things that [had seemed] so important to people’s lives. All these worldly things that people spend a lifetime getting didn’t matter any more. Nobody gave a second thought to saving those things.”

    OAKLAND—Jeff Hintz rode the Nimitz Freeway down when it collapsed. An assistant ward clerk in the Alameda Ward, Oakland California Stake, Brother Hintz was on his way home from work, eager to watch the World Series. He was driving the new car he and his wife had recently purchased after their old one had been wrecked.

    He had just come off the Bay Bridge onto the upper deck of the freeway when his car began to feel as though all four tires had blown, and the steering wouldn’t respond. His first impression was that the new car was falling apart. Then he noticed “the road rolling up and down like ocean waves.” His car catapulted over a section of freeway that had suddenly raised up, and he was tossed around, breaking his nose in the process. Then he braked to a stop and sat, engulfed in thick dust. “What I remember most was the silence,” he says. “It was unearthly.”

    Dazed, he nevertheless walked around helping others escape from their vehicles, following the impressions he felt. When the opportunity came to climb down a ladder supplied by residents living near the freeway, all he carried away from his car was his set of scriptures. It was while he was descending the ladder that the full import of the freeway collapse struck him. He could hear the cries of people trapped in cars sandwiched between the freeway decks.

    “I feel as if I’ve been given a second life,” he said. “Before the quake, I thought since I’m a young man I’d have plenty of time to correct all my little sins before I die. Now I realize I must begin immediately. This quake showed me you never know if you will have more time.”

    HOLLISTER—Over the years, Ray Montero of Hollister, public communications director serving both wards in the city, has developed a strong relationship with other churches in the community. Working with local clergy, he has helped develop food and shelter programs for emergencies, as well as for the ongoing needs of the homeless and others in the community. “We were already pretty well prepared for the quake,” Brother Montero said. “We were able to handle our own needs without much outside assistance.”

    Pastor Bill Habin had already turned much of the property belonging to his Southern Baptist Church into a family shelter that feeds and houses about one hundred people per day. In the past, Reverend Habin said, he was no friend to the Latter-day Saints. But he has changed his mind after working with them. “I think they have done as much to help our town as anyone. I know they have put as much effort into the shelter at my church as anyone.” His relationship with the Latter-day Saints had progressed to the point that Derek Nordstrom, an LDS stake missionary in Hollister, had been invited in to teach about Christ at Pastor Habin’s church once a week.

    Looking back on his experiences with members of other faiths in Hollister, Brother Montero commented, “It’s nice to know that when a quake or other community emergency comes, we’re working together already.”

    SAN FRANCISCO/OAKLAND—Missionaries of the California Oakland and California San Jose missions put in literally tens of thousands of hours as volunteers after the quake. One group helped serve food and provide support for workers tearing apart the downed freeway in Oakland in search of survivors. Others helped unload and deliver emergency supplies and perform other tasks in Red Cross shelters.

    President Leo Douglas of the San Jose mission received a call one night from a man who identified himself as one of the top three Red Cross officers in San Francisco. “Where are you getting all these wonderful volunteers who just keep showing up?” the man asked. “Where do you get so many clean minds and strong backs?”

    ALMA, SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS—President Allan Nelson was probably hit as hard by the quake as anyone in the branch. His house was destroyed. Fortunately, his family members were on the top floor when the bottom one collapsed. He has spent much of his time since the earthquake seeing to the needs of branch members. Many, in turn, have helped with his family’s needs while he has been away serving others.

    President Nelson expresses gratitude for the immediate help of regional welfare agent Leo Haney, who saw the need for water and sent it in fifty 50-gallon drums. Some members wondered where they could safely store belongings they had salvaged; soon there were lockable storage units in the parking lot of the branch meetinghouse, brought by Brother Haney. Then came tarps to protect members’ belongings from torrential rains that came not long after the earthquake.

    President Nelson was deeply impressed by a blessing on members pronounced by Santa Cruz stake president Brad McDonald at the recent stake conference. “He promised us in the name of the Lord that we’d all be able to get back on our feet again. It was one of the most spiritual experiences of my life. I can’t tell you what a blessing like that means at a time like this.” Assessing his own situation—needing work, home destroyed—President Nelson nevertheless was buoyed up by that experience in stake conference. “I don’t know just what we’ll do, but I know after this blessing that the Lord will take care of us somehow until we are able to take care of ourselves again.”

    Some members’ homes and property were damaged by the earthquake. This home and car belonged to members in the Santa Cruz area.

    External damage to members’ homes in the Santa Cruz Mountains did not show the near-total destruction inside. (Photo by Kjirstin Youngberg.)

    In Hollister, Bill Habin (left), pastor of a Southern Baptist church, and Ray Montero, a Latter-day Saint, worked together in community relief efforts. (Photo by Kjirstin Youngberg.)

    Missionaries in the San Francisco area donated many hours of volunteer labor. (Photo by Keith Larsen.)

    Show References

    • William E. Homer is the Church’s Bay Area multiregion public communications director.

    • Julie Dockstader is a magazine journalist in Mountain View.

    • Kjirsten Youngberg is a photographer-writer in San Jose.