Santa Cruz library project collecting oral histories for anniversary project
"That wasn't going to stop me. I was born in New York City," Barber said this week, her accent pouring out with her smile. "I'd survived subways, I'd survived plenty of worse things in New York."
The Queens, New York-native was prepared for the threat of some theoretical earth trembling, she said. Her confidence was shaken, however, 11 years later when the region was struck by the Loma Prieta earthquake, a 15-second temblor with a magnitude of 7.1 — at the time, the largest since the 1906 quake — whose epicenter was just miles away, in Aptos.
At the time of the quake, Barber, who had "found the beach" and first moved to Santa Cruz County three years earlier, was facing a time of personal upheaval. She was working with a therapist as she dealt with the terminal illness diagnosis for two loved ones and the recent ending of a romantic relationship.
"My therapist was helping me get through the break-up of my six-year relationship. And, as my therapist said (after the quake), 'Donna, you were already on shaking ground, and the ground shook,'" said Barber, 67. "So I never forgot that statement, either."
Otherwise, however, the sunny Tuesday afternoon of Oct. 17, 1989 started off like any other.
Aptos branch assistant librarian Donna Barber recalls her experiences during the Loma Prieta earthquake while being interviewed for the library's "Epicenter" project. (Shmuel Thaler — Santa Cruz Sentinel)
By 5:04 p.m., Barber had finished her delivery route for the U.S. Postal Service and was home showering. That's when she heard the sound of shattering glass, immediately assuming someone was breaking in at her single-level Live Oak townhome and about to attack.
"So, all that was going through my mind as the entire shower and tub were rocking and swaying. And every time I tried to step out, I fell back in," Barber explained Thursday to a camera set up in a meeting room at the Aptos Branch Library. "So, I don't know how many seconds it took, but I finally was able to step out, because my first thought was, you need to put some clothes on here."
Santa Cruz Identity
Barber, an assistant librarian who has worked for Santa Cruz Public Libraries for the past decade, was the second volunteer to share her 3-decade-old memories with her peers, Jennifer Hooker and Kathleen Aston. The two librarians have paired up on Hooker's effort, dubbed "Epicenter: The Loma Prieta 30th Anniversary Oral Histories Project," aiming to collect as many personal stories from a wide an array of people in the lead up to this year's Oct. 17 recognition. Individual oral history recordings will be available through the library's local history archives, and a project compilation will be shown at the commemorative ceremony. Project information is available at santacruzpl.org/news/permalink/923.
Jennifer Hooker, left, interviews Donna Barber as Hooker and Kathleen Aston begin collecting oral histories from the Loma Prieta earthquake. (Shmuel Thaler — Santa Cruz Sentinel)
Both library workers were born in the year after the quake, so have no first-hand memories of the event that was life-changing for so many of their neighbors. At least one running family joke for Aston is so familiar it feels like a memory. On the day of the earthquake, Aston's older brother was outside with their mother, watching the kiddie pool "turn into a tidal wave," while her baby sister was inside. Her father came running outside, met with mom's stern questioning, "Where's the baby?" Aston said she is interested in sussing out the resilience of people in the face of personal tragedy, natural disaster and climate change.
Hooker, for her part, said she is heavily involved in grassroots emergency preparedness work and sees Loma Prieta through the lens of prompting the community to be ready for the next big disaster. She described the stories of Loma Prieta, which left three county residents dead and power and water out for three days, in addition to the destruction and fatalities across up and down the coast, as "such an integral part of the Santa Cruz identity."
"I firmly believe that the more that people are able to take care of themselves and each other in these sorts of crises, the less strain that would be on first responders, so that they can deal with people who can't help themselves and people who can't help each other, and devote those resources to people who actually need it," Hooker said.
As part of the Epicenter project, Hooker is pairing with area crisis response agencies for the project in coming months, lining up a series of library-based community workshops to educate people on available preparedness resources. Both organizers are seeking more volunteers to share their memories from the earthquake, from emergency responders to laypersons, from Watsonville to Davenport, from those adversely impacted to those without adverse impacts. Schedule an appointment by emailing Hooker at email@example.com or leave a message at 831-427-7706, ext. 7647.
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