30 Years After the Loma Prieta Earthquake

by Rev. Norman Fong

October 21, 2019

norman fong

On October 17, 1989, I was living and working at Cameron House and had just picked up my 2-year-old son from the childcare center at our church. We were walking on Joice Alley when the earthquake hit. I remember immediately covering my son next to a wide wooden bollard and as I heard the light bulbs crashing down in the Cameron House basketball court yard, I also looked up and actually saw the buildings swaying! Thank God the bricks didn’t break off from all the buildings around us.

That evening, we used the camp lights (luckily we had a lot because we often took youth camping during the summer), we lit up the big community room and I remember so many of our neighbors and friends coming in at night to see if everyone was OK but also, to see if the Cameron House building was OK. Our neighbors thought we had electricity. I also remember a few youth in ski masks walking down Sacramento Street (and luckily, I knew who the kids were), I confronted them, “You are Not going to rob the stores in Chinatown – go back home – I know your mom!”.

The next day, I remember some mom’s that live in Chinatown who asked me where they could get milk for their babies. Most of the Chinatown stores and restaurants locked their doors and closed down. I remember taking a couple moms to Cala Foods on Hyde and California Street as they were open because they had a backup generator. I kept thinking, in the future, we need to get all the restaurants, pharmacies and stores to share what they have during the next earthquake but have some government forms for people to sign so they could get their money back. I figure the food and milk would spoil anyway and some folks will need their medicine. Can we do that?

chinatown tenants fire extinguishers

chinatown earthquake drill

During an earthquake, telephone lines in the area are likely to be down or too busy, so you must arrange with an out of State (not in CA) friend or relative to be a contact person. In case your family is separated, each family member could call this person to keep each other informed. The NICOS Chinese Health Coalition has a Neighborhood Plan for Chinatown. Portsmouth Square is where people should go for help or to volunteer to help when there is a big earthquake. All you young people should volunteer to help our seniors if there is another big earthquake. One of my best memories the year after the quake was having the fire department lead Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) Trainings for Chinatown and many other SF Neighborhoods. It was so cool to see our Seniors learn how to put out fires by using Fire Extinguishers (don’t worry, it was just a small fire in a big bucket). They had never used one before.

fire safety simulation

go bag nert

I learned from the NERT trainings that everyone should have a disaster “go bag” with a flashlight, batteries, a scissor or knife, plastic garbage bags, duct tape, water, food, your medicine, a radio, first aid kit… If you don’t have one, ask your family members to help you make one. The garbage bags can be your blanket when it’s cold or used in a bucket for your toilet… it can cover broken windows too… and that’s why you need that duct tape too. Stay informed using your radio: Chinese radio: 1400 AM (Sing Tao‐Cantonese) / 96.1 FM (Sing Tao‐Mandarin). We didn’t have those services 30 years ago. Always stay informed.


A lot has changed in Chinatown since 30 years ago. It was a very scary time for Chinatown & it’s businesses and buildings that had to be retrofitted. The Embarcadero Freeway came down and supposedly, we are going to have the Subway built to reconnect us with the Bay Area. My old elementary school Jean Parker on Broadway and Powell was rebuilt. The Ping Yuen is now seismically safe. Many Chinatown businesses are still struggling 30 years later. We all can’t wait until the subway is complete. I remember some of the churches were thinking about moving out to the Richmond or Sunset rather than paying a lot to make their churches seismically safe. Thank God, the churches chose to stay and rebuild in Chinatown. My home church has been in Chinatown since 1853 and we made it through both the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes. We all choose to keep our Chinatown going no matter what difficulties we must face. It is that spirit and love for our community that must keep this oldest Chinatown in North America going. Take care everybody. Make your “Go-bags” & plans now if you haven’t learned in 30 years. Stay safe. “Sun Tai Geen Hong!”

Originally published in Sing Tao Daily on October 20, 2019

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