Tsunami Warning San Francisco, and other dirges in the dark

A peek at “local media” during a disaster in the dead of night

Disasters – natural or otherwise – don’t always strike at reasonable hours – and when an insistent pounding on the front door woke me from a deep sleep early in the morning of Friday, March 11, it wasn’t a reasonable hour.

It was 1:30am and our neighbor had woken us to tell us about the hugely incomprehensible 8.9 (later revised to 9.0) earthquake in Japan — and to warn us of the massive tsunami headed our way.

I then proceeded to try to figure out what was really going on — and what, if anything, to do about it. I pored over the tweets for credible news, first relieved that our good friends in Japan were safe, second reading about terrible devastation, in-between baffled by regular life apparently continuing with #ipad2 and #sxsw, and finally trying to parse the warnings about the West Coast of the USA, where I lay awake all night.

tsunami warning san francisco bay area - from http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/mtr/

Tsunami warning San Francisco Bay Area - from National Weather Service at http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/mtr/

On the Web beyond the tweets, I gaped at incredible maps with great red bands all up and down the coast of Northern California – red meaning “warning” – and “warning” apparently meaning, according to the automatically generated Tsunami information I could find, evacuate.

While I tried to parse this information to figure out whether I did, in fact, need to pack my family up and ship out, the official word from San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management was to “monitor local media for updates.” “Which local media would that be?” said SF friend @jamiedsongs. Good question.

At SFGate, the Web site that backs San Francisco’s major newspaper the San Francisco Chronicle, the lights were on but there appeared to be nobody home.

SFGate in the early morning on March 11, 2011

SFGate in the early morning on March 11, 2011

Though it had apparently been (automatically?) alerted to the major quake and tsunami, the front page was obviously stale to say the least, advising “no warning for CA coast” when the National Weather Service had already stuck us in the red “Tsunami Warning” category. Featured feeds were truly strange (live TV from Al Jazeera? Live blog from WSJ?) or virtually irrelevant (a quake details page leading to California earthquakes).

Automatic news is often worse than no news at all. I desperately wished for the “local media” to wake up and interpret all of this.

The only live person I found anywhere close to SFGate was featured columnist Jeanne Cooper, @Hawaii_Insider, who was putting out actual analysis in real-time and for whom I felt immensely thankful.

There was also sign of life at a site I had never previously relied on for news, California Beat, but this wasn’t entirely reassuring when a masthead mistakenly read “Tsunami evacuations issued for Bay Area.”

Tsunami evacuations on California Beat -- later retracted

Tsunami evacuations on California Beat -- later retracted



At 4:49am San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee tweeted with a welcome voice of official authority, at last saying that although San Francisco had activated the Emergency Operations center, there was no evacuation ordered.

But still the giant wave was coming. BART indicated they might close down entirely between peak Friday morning commute hours of 7-9am (or they might not), while waiting to see the extent of the hit on Hawaii (which was thankfully minimal) and then later Crescent City — which was not spared.

At the exact moment of tsunami impact in Crescent City, local newspaper the Daily Triplicate was apparently automatically chirping birth announcements (several weeks late), while thetriplicate.com Web site was down.

Crescent City Daily Triplicate, around 7:30am on March 11, 2011

Crescent City Daily Triplicate, around 7:30am on March 11, 2011

In this age of information overload, I realized I knew where to go for tons information and in real time, but not where to go for the right, local information. It was a bizarre world online throughout the night, but bizarre was trivial compared to the real tragedies unfolding across the Pacific in Japan.

The current big problem of information during disasters is that these places we rely on for local, up-to-date news, like all-too-often the cities themselves, are suffering economic woes. I don’t know much about Crescent City’s Daily Triplicate, but it’s likely to be in as much financial peril at the moment as its devastated harbor city itself.

Aside from wishing the very best and holding out hope for Japan and the global community, I only hope existing news channels can materialize the real opportunities that exist here and survive and evolve, not necessarily in that order. Until then, we have each other, in the middle of the night, on Twitter…

And while Lenin read a book on Marx
The quartet practiced in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the music died

Don McLean – American Pie

This Morning’s City Safari

Here’s a scene from this morning’s walk through Pacific Heights to our girl’s summer camp.  Ahh, I love a lovely morning walk in the San Francisco fog at the top of the city.  My daughter is a budding cinematographer, and when we encountered this wildlife, I was glad she had insisted on bringing the Flip video camera.

“It’s not a rat,” I say authoritatively, although I really have no idea.  My daughter thinks it’s cute and is disappointed that I ignore her when she insists the rat likes her.  Sorry honey.  But what IS this?

October 17, 1989, 5:04pm

I remember everything about that day 20 years ago.

It was a Tuesday. In the morning, Rebecca and I made plans to meet at Slim’s after work to buy tickets for the upcoming Phranc show. Then she went off on Muni downtown to her job, and I took a bus and walked to my job, at an architects’ office, on Townsend at 4th Street. On the top floor. In a brick building. On landfill.

I had only been working there for about a week, I think. I was temping. For lunch, I walked the couple blocks up 4th toward Bryant and ate Mexican food. It was a balmy, hot, humid, windless and dusty day. I ate a big lunch…

At 5:00pm, we were getting ready to leave work. I was sitting nearest the window to Townsend Street. My workmate Roxanne was sitting at a different desk across the room. Towards the entryway, there was a huge vase full of flowers against the wall, then the door to the emergency stairs, then the entry door.

At 5:04pm the rumbling began. It was fairly strong but not long, and I heard it as much as felt it. I heard the sounds of the bricks, just a couple feet away, rumbling together — a sound I shall never forget. I hadn’t gotten under the desk by the time it stopped – but as soon as it stopped, it started again, with a vengeance. I looked over at Roxanne just as she dropped out of sight below her desk. I promptly dropped under mine. The noise and the shaking was so incredibly violent; I was holding my desk so it wouldn’t rock away; I was holding the desk drawers that were flailing out. I was trying to keep my typewriter — typewriter! — from jumping off my desk and hitting me. I might have even groaned somewhat. It went on forever — and yet it had all stopped only fifteen seconds later.

Then there was silence. Which also seemed to last forever. But it must have only been seconds later that I found myself running down the emergency-lit stairwell the floor flights down to Townsend below. I’ll never forget (well, everything, obviously) the flower vase on my way out the door. The vase had lifted itself up and flown several feet, and laid there, a perfectly flattened smashed version of itself, flowers in tact, on the floor in my path.  I never returned to that job and never saw Roxanne again.

Outside, there was dust and heat and thick air. People were waiting in line at CalTrain phones (hard to believe – no cell phones, right!). I promptly thought of contacting my family, then about Rebecca. Was she stuck underground on Muni? Was she OK? I took off down Townsend towards our meeting point.

There was a huge cloud of thick smoke coming from the Marina area. I think I had already heard rumours of the Bay Bridge having fallen down. Then, two blocks from my work, I reached 6th Street at Townsend.

6th Street between Townsend and Bluxome; C.E. Meyer, United States Geological Survey; courtesy Wikipedia

6th Street between Townsend and Bluxome; C.E. Meyer, United States Geological Survey; courtesy Wikipedia

Down the short block, there was dust, there were a lot of people gathered, and there was a big pile of bricks. Somehow, I remember people were not moving very quickly — something I could hardly comprehend. I started towards the bricks; someone told me this: “You better not go any further; there are people buried under there.” Later I found out that five people died when the bricks had fallen on top of them as they were getting into their cars to go home.

I started to feel sick and worried about Rebecca and I started running towards Slim’s at 11th and Folsom. Homeless people had sprung into action and, since there was no power, were directing traffic in the SOMA area. I was terribly relieved when I found Rebecca, leaning up against the wall at Slim’s, waiting for me just as we had prearranged.

We had a beer at the Paradise Lounge on the corner and were watching a TV in there, that for some reason had power, when we figured we oughtta go see about our apartment.

It was now growing dark outside. The long hallway to our apartment on the second floor in the (brick) Skyline Building at Church and Market was dark, and the smoke detectors were going “beep, beep, beep,” which they would regularly do for weeks to come every time power went out again, as seemed to happen with the biggest aftershocks. We pushed to open our door — at first, the door was stuck and we were freaked out that it was wrecked inside. But it was just the stowed-away mirror doors that had fallen and blocked our path. There were a lot of cracks inside and broken plaster, and our refrigerator door was open — but other than that we were in-tact. I made a quick call to my parents to tell them we were OK. Then friends arrived.

Since we had a great central location, we were fortunate to have many visitors that night. Becky, who lived just across the street on 14th, came by. Later in the evening Lisa showed up — she worked in San Francisco and was waiting for the bus to take her back to Oakland when the quake hit. Others came by. It wasn’t until the next day that we heard where Becky’s roommate Angela was… Follow her blog for more on that.

We went and stood in line at the corner store and bought canned beer, batteries, and white bread, which we ate in candlelight, while aftershocks continued to freak us out all night.

That’s the basic story. There are many many strong memories in the shaky days, weeks, and months and years that came, such as standing in line for hours trying to give blood (when I was too faint by the end to donate), and being glued constantly to the TV (once the power came back on) to people I came to know as my guardian Angels, Pete Wilson and Anna Chavez. Every day for years after that — for as long as we lived in that apartment — I gazed at the leaves on the tree outside the window to see if they were moving. When there was still and calm, I was nervous. I craved the wind.

It was only 15 seconds those 20 years ago — and at 7.1, which somehow years later shrank to 6.9 on the Richter Scale, not nearly as big as some of the recent quakes we’ve seen worldwide. And in a pretty well retrofit city. Yet, those fifteen short seconds and the time that followed altered my own personal landscape, forever.

As a result of those few 15 seconds, I am now permanently claustrophobic, a terrified flier, and nearly always consider what I’m driving over when I drive the Bay Bridge. To this day my heart sinks when there’s an earthquake, regardless of the size, especially in the middle of the night, because I don’t get back to sleep. I tune into the radio (and now Twitter more and more) to find community to pull me through till morning.

On the other hand, I enjoy wide open spaces, I can usually tell you where the nearest exit is (along with all the other exits), and I value my friends and community so greatly.

So I finally commit this to writing today, in deference to the memory of the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, and to my friends and my community, and most of all, to the powers of nature — and of love.

6th street between Townsend and Bluxome, today

6th street between Townsend and Bluxome, today

The only community that needs to matter

I just read Mike Walsh’s post Community through the eyes of a 2nd grader. I really like his musings about the community at his boy’s school:

They create mini-communities or groups which they call a Grove. A Grove consists on 9 kids, 1 kid from each grade, k through 8. These Groves meet every couple of weeks to mentor, share, help, learn and develop friendships across grades. What a fabulous idea – gathering all stakeholders and discussing how they can create a stronger and more valuable community – I love it!

This interests me for many reasons. Not the least of which, life has made sense to me diffently — or only — now that I have my girl, but I’m also fascinated in general about the nexus between on- and off-line communities.

'Rock climbing' at Crissy FieldI’m passionate about “my” San Francisco community, even though it often feels just as intangible as bits on the Internet, but I’m especially curious about where on- and off-line communities “meet.” Arguably, you could say we have Monica Lewinsky to thank for the powerful growth of online communities in the “offline” world of politics (think Move On). Lately, some clever innovators are monetizing through their online stores but delivering just down the street (Kodak and its picture books). And I’m fascinated about the physical books we still buy, print, read, and most importantly, share — as well as new online gems like the promising Red Room that are also bridging that gap between physical and ethereal communities.

So are physical and online communities really so different?

Some day soon I’ll re-post my blog/rant on “Web 2.0 and my community” – which I wrote internally at my company after walking down Golden Gate Avenue to the Expo last year (and the ensuing Spock Debacle), but for now, I’m happy to just to be reminded of what matters. As Mike says

I learned quite a bit during the 60 minutes that I spent with a bunch of little kids – and enjoyed every minute of it. This is a great reminder of keeping eyes wide open. Turn off the Blackberry and listen to your little kids. It turns out that they’re pretty smart.

Likewise, like Therese Stewart saying “It’s not same-sex marriage: it’s marriage” — it’s not on- or off-line community, it’s just community. I’m thrilled every day in which I get to perceive it through new eyes.

Lit Crawl and the Resurgence of the Mission

I was trying to figure out what about last Saturday’s Lit Crawl particularly warmed my heart, and it hit me this morning like a stream of light through the sun down 280 (which if you think about it, makes it clear I wasn’t actually reading at the Lit Crawl).

As I look forward to attending the Web 2.0 Summit tomorrow through Friday in San Francisco, my community, work, and the different roads and travails in between are again on my mind (not like they’re never not on my mind). Those of us who already lived here in the mid-to-late ’90s of the last millenium remember names like Kozmo, Webvan, Bigstep, and slogans like “because pets can’t drive.” Those of us who lived in the Mission district in San Francisco remember the schizophrenia of the times and the huge influx of people striking for a new gold rush. These people could bring excitement and ideas, but they often left frighteningly quickly and with waste in their wake.

In just one of many similar scenarios, Bigstep took over a huge building down at 22nd and Mission. Artists and teachers were evicted, presumably to the outskirts of civilization, because artists and teachers didn’t earn the mint for living there now. Till recently this exodus hasn’t been a memory, but rather a reality.

I don’t know when or if it started to feel like a memory for most, but on Saturday night, the “death of the Mission” was far from my mind. Oceans of people washed down Valencia, Mission, and Guerrero from one pub (or laundromat) to the next and crammed in and on top of every nook and cranny (or agitator) to hear people reading. Reading! Literature, poetry, fiction, travel writing, rock writing were all alive and well and thriving with absolutely masses of people. Only this morning, looking back, did it make me feel like we’ve finally come out, and back into some kind of goodness again.

The Muni Pill

The Muni Pill

The Muni Pill

As often as possible and minimally two days a week, I work from home in San Francisco. I believe this quite literally saves my life. In spite of my occasional encounters with Muni on these days.

I know it’s a cheap shot to complain about Muni, but I just have to get it out of my system and then I’ll be done. I met a friend down at the ferry plaza for lunch and stepped into one of the longest Muni fiascos I can remember. I say this with some measure of restraint, since I know Muni is capable of killing and as far as I know there’s been none of that today. But “something happened to some computer somewhere” and the railways underground have been reduced to a crawl – if they are even running at all.

Note that the news article recommends taking buses or streetcars: should YOU, dear reader, be blessed with reading this before commute hour this evening, heed NOT the scant information in that article! I say that, and note that I always take streetcars whenever I can – I love the friendly colors of the F Market and I generally prefer being above ground. Today, however, these colors make me ill. Note that on days when there is “something wrong in the tunnel,” anything that rolls and is run by Muni above ground is so packed that you don’t want to approach it. This is where I was for most of an hour returning from lunch just now.

Somewhere around Van Ness on the way down and at the point where the orange car I was on resembled a giant, stuffed sardine can, another driver hopped on (I think… I couldn’t see) and started yelling at everyone: “Get back! Get all the way back!” he yelled, “This is MY car now; get back!” For a brief instant, I imagined that terrorists had taken over the car and were going to hijack it; then I considered that it was Muni and why would anyone want to take over Muni? My windows had bars on them so I couldn’t even contemplate breaking out of the car. A claustrophobe’s nightmare, pretty much.

In the meantime, ambulances and firetrucks are inexplicably careening up and down the tracks, sometimes stopping directly in the path of the train, for occasionally no apparent reason.

But lunch was great and the ferry plaza was as gorgeous as always. Only then I had to get back home.

The way back was less crowded but took me an hour. My green train stopped only at 9th street so that it could double back to pick up other stranded passengers. Instead of waiting for the next one, I walked up Market the rest of the way. I approached my street as three colored F Market trains caught up behind me, struggling up the street like gigantic bitter pills stuck in someone’s esophagus. One orange, one yellow, and one green…

Much better to walk.

And with all that, there’s no question at all in my mind that I’d rather be stuck on Muni (or better, walking home in San Francisco) than stuck on highway 280 or stuck in traffic pretty much anywhere.