1989 earthquake in California - 27 October 1989
As you can imagine, our papers, magazines, television channels have been choked during the past week with accounts, replays, meditations, about the northern California earthquake.
And in a nation at all times fascinated by technology, with innumerable architectural and engineering pieces about why, in San Francisco especially, 99% of the city, 100% of the skyscrapers and high-rises, swung like sheets in the wind, and then settled, upright and substantially unharmed.
Among all my friends out there of every sort – sportsman, scholars, housewives, former soldiers, jocks, aesthetes, businessmen, rightists leftists, centrists – there is the same, indelible, memory of being more terrified for 15 seconds, than they had ever been in their lives, feeling as if they were being shaken in a bowl of jelly.
The other common response among the city dwellers was the sense of wonder and incredulity, at seeing 10, 20-storey buildings sway back and forth, 10, 15 feet, which they knew in their heads is what they were built to do, but seeing it happen, made them all feel that the end had surely come.
I expect to be out there this time next week and then, perhaps, there will be things to say that could not be gathered at long distance from the armies of foreign and domestic television reporters, who were hurled out there and who don’t know the city, who station themselves for visual effect in the four locations in San Francisco and Oakland that suffered the saddest and most dramatic damage.
This, of course, produced misleading reporting. Seeing incessantly, over many days and nights, just those four ruined locations, the Nimitz freeway, the collapsed span of the Bay Bridge, the one building south of Mission Street that fell on a car of six people and most of all, the fire that blazed away in the single block between two streets of the marina district.
The effect of these selective pictures on millions of viewers, here and abroad, was to convey the image of a shattered city. That's not, I am sure, what the television crews and commentators were trying to do – fires and rubble simply make more impressive pictures.
It was, I believe, the pioneer Russian film director, Eisenstein, who pointed out in the early days that the splicing together of separate single images is the whole method of film. He took the simplest example, you shoot a close-up of a keyhole and follow it, in the instant, with a picture of a young woman sitting in a bath tub.
The audience feels immediately it is spying, never mind that the keyhole on the door is in Moscow and the bathing beauty was in Leningrad. Film, said Eisenstein, is of its nature, calculated deceit.
Well, as I say, there was no conscience effort to deceive in the television coverage we saw, but the impression it left has had an immediate and alarming effect on the substance of San Francisco’s economy, tourism and the service trades that live by it.
Oddly, in all the many hours of television coverage, this never came up, until the 24-hour cable television network I grazed last week had, a week after the earthquake, an interview with a taxi driver.
By the nature of his trade he plainly knew what he was talking about, starting with his own problem. At the weekends he normally takes in about $175 a day driving tourists here and there. On the first days he took in $30, since then, he has been averaging about 70.
If things get no better, he thought he’d have to look for another job or go on welfare, at a time when the welfare rolls are being strained beyond their limit. So he mentioned an immense drop in revenues, receipts, wages, of the hotels, restaurant bellboys, waiters, food suppliers, tour bus drivers, cab drivers.
Since then the travel agents and the chamber of commerce have amplified this complaint into an appeal and are begging all the people who had intended to holiday in San Francisco to hold to their plans – after New York City, San Francisco is the tourist Mecca of the United States.
According to one travel agent, a great many intending tourists have switched to a winter holiday in the Caribbean where, incidentally, the hurricane season is over. Of course the earthquake season is never over, in California.
Well, we shall see whether, a week, a month from now, the damaging pictures of those damaged places will have faded sufficiently to reinstate all the conferences and conventions that were cancelled within 24 hours of the quake.
The decision of the baseball commissioner and the mayors of San Francisco and Oakland to resume the games and the baseball championship was made, of course, on the report of a team of structural engineers that San Francisco's ball park – Candlestick Park – is absolutely safe. Still, the sight of forty, fifty, perhaps, thousand people cheering in the stands that swayed should bring a powerful reassurance to the country that San Francisco is once more a safe place to visit.
It's noticeable' by the way' that in the past few days most of the television coverage has switched way down south nearer the epicentre, where the seaside town of Santa Cruz really did suffer appalling visible damage. A shopping mall with 100 shops gone, or about to be demolished, and over 60% of the town's buildings destroyed.
Well as the mayor of San Francisco said, Churchill did not close the cinemas during the Blitz and a famous baseball player remarked that once, within two days of his brother’s death, he had to be back in the game. So, inevitably, we leave northern California to its formidable job of rebuilding and relieving the thousands of homeless and the new unemployed, and turn to the doings at the ranch.
At the White House, where, on Tuesday, a more than usually distraught president lamented the minutes of what he can do to meet the nagging problems of a country that is a continent – indeed, the problems of the hemisphere.
I would love to be able, he said, just not even to worry about the relief for the hurricane and the earthquake. I’d love to see programmes that would help developing countries, for example, but our hands are tied. I am not throwing money at a problem in the Cameroons or in Colombia, I’d like to, if we had more funds available. And the cities and drugs, eastern Europe, housing, policing ... I worry on that, if we just had tons more federal money, we could solve everything.
Eastern Europe is an especially sore point. Mr Bush offered Lech Walesa $100million and West Germany came through with an offer of – what was it – a billion? Money is much on the president's mind just now because the day after the interview the most powerful committees in Congress sat down to write a deficit reduction bill.
Which they were required to do by the middle of October. They didn’t make it, and the new law, passed by the last Congress so called Gramm-Rudman law, says that if Congress has not cut the deficit by a certain amount then automatic cuts go into effect across the board. As they say, that means everything from defence to child care.
One fat muscle of the budget is however, sacrosanct, may not be allowed to feel a knife. That is the social security programme to which all employed persons are required to contribute against the day when they are 65 and then receive from the government a monthly cheque by way of a repayment of their contributions, and have practically all their medical problems taken care of.
From the government's point of view, the continuing curse of the social security programme which nobody seems able to exorcise, is the compounding of an old person's benefits so that by now, very many people over 65 have been paid far more than they ever put in.
A simple case is that of a former speaker of the house, who apart from his house pension now receives every year more than twice his annual salary when he was a congressman. That's not an aberration, the old devil interest makes that normal.
Consequently, the social security programme has no fixed budget, the absolute untouchable amount rises every year. It's now, I believe, 43% of the whole national budget.
The social security system started in 1937, and 25 years ago there were obviously – by several billions – fewer 65-year-olds to receive the monthly cheque.
In those happy days President Kennedy could budget between 48 and 51 cents in the dollar for defence, and never be called a warmonger. Not like Ronald Reagan, whose defence budget was, as a cynic said, increased to 28 cents in the dollar, and you know what he was called.
So these committees will begin sweating ways to try and pair off the budget, the $16billions that Gramm-Rudman requires. Ten committees in the house and nine in the Senate, over 200 law makers, sat down on Wednesday to save the country from going broke by the end of October.
Broke is a technical term. But it does mean that the Congress has to cut the budget and maintain a debt limit that will allow the government to go on borrowing money from abroad. The Japanese regularly kindly pay the interest on the national debt to allow the government, as the New York Times stonily puts it, to stay in operation.
Well no one need fear that the American government will not stay in operation. The Gramm-Rudman law, which at first glance looks so mothproof a blanket, is riddled with loopholes. It can, at the discretion of these committees, allow certain whacking items to be counted off budget. Urgent mandatories, they are called, like relief for the hurricane Hugo and the earthquake, those debts will be pushed forward, to the 1991 deficit. Gramm-Rudman also provides for marvels of accountancy, of doubled and tripled book-keeping and ingenious fudging.
So much so that a congressman remarked to a committee man the other day, "Just perform some of those tricks on your own income tax returns, senator, and you will land in jail."
THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING OF THE ORIGINAL BBC BROADCAST (© BBC) AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
Letter from America audio recordings of broadcasts ©BBC. Letter from America scripts © Cooke Americas, RLLP. All rights reserved.