BAY AREA QUAKE : QUAKE DIARY : Amid the Pain, a Megalopolis Pulled Together

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Good luck, San Francisco. The hard part is over, the hardship ahead--for as far and as long as anyone can see.

Those of us who arrived with the first waves of out-of-towners to report this disaster and how you coped, we're reeling like you this weekend. It's been dizzying. We were moved watching you.

We wish you well with the long and unglamorous labors ahead. True enough, there will be unceasing attention on the Bay Area for a long while, money and mounting help too. But you are getting back to life.

Watching you, we learned something about how to handle ourselves in the earthquake that comes our way, about improvisation and determination. We found that some rules work and some conventional wisdom does not. We learned how hard it is to keep things in perspective.

But wasn't it surprising, even uplifting, how a megalopolis could pull tightly together and gamely face up to death, darkness and the yawning unknown?

We learned some political do's and don'ts. Even hard-bitten disaster hands learned again the frightful capriciousness of nature wielding the rod. And the whole country learned anew that a disaster almost always gives up a miracle from its pain.

There are the little moments. With the power out, a young man learned that lugging an old man's groceries up 23 flights of stairs got him the kind of satisfaction money couldn't buy.

"God bless you," the wheezing old man said simply.

That was Wednesday, the day after. On Monday, the young man probably would not even have held a door open for the old stranger.

Psychologists could have predicted it. Disasters bring out the noble in us.

Take Jennifer Minton of Orinda. On Saturday, Day 4 of the dig-out, all she had to do was ask. Friends and neighbors came rushing forth with all kinds of food and tents and camp stoves for those who lost nearly everything in Santa Cruz.

"People want to do something. Sometimes they don't know what to do. We're making it easy--we're giving them a way to help," she said. Volunteer pilots organized an airlift to ferry the goods through the gloomy rain.

The face of struggle was unrelenting. It was there at the Nimitz Freeway where television recorded every astonishing minute of a man's miracle survival. Who among us had lost all hope?

Struggle continued far from cameras, too. On the second floor of a Marina District walk-up, a shaken and bone-weary young woman packed up her life in plastic bags and heaved them out the window. Police gave her just 15 minutes to get in, get what she needed, and get out of the crumbling building. Frantic, she didn't even look below. One bag dropped heavily on a passer-by. The quake, known as The Little Big One, claimed another injury.

And now the fiends come to life. San Francisco authorities said men claiming to be Red Cross workers talked their way into homes. One would distract the owner. The other would then loot valuables.

In another case, a man was arrested after calling a residence and ordering an evacuation, saying there had been an aftershock. Reportedly, the caller later was caught ransacking the vacant house.

A pitiful tale came from among the good and decent people who directed traffic on the first night of the quake, when signal lights were out.

DeSota Barker was one such citizen, holding a flare in his hand and trying to keep cars moving at the intersection of Pierce and Oak streets. Someone did not approve, pulled a gun and the 30-year-old Barker fell dead.

Price-gouging, the dark shadow of opportunity that frequents disasters, found a friend among some local "entrepreneurs." Dist. Atty. Arlo Smith said he would seek an emergency ordinance this week to limit price increases to 10% of pre-quake levels. Gasoline, batteries and newspapers were common targets.

Wil Hearst, publisher of the San Francisco Examiner, for one, was not pleased.

In a published letter to readers, Hearst explained that it was beyond his control that dealers were charging "excessive premiums. The Examiner regrets this practice. . . . Members of the public should not have to pay an an 'earthquake surcharge.' "

Then there was the helpful promise of a sign sighted on Chestnut Avenue, at the edge of the Marina District's worst destruction. "Emergency Housing Available," it read. Callers were annoyed to find it was the work of a real estate agent trying to rent a $1,500-a-month luxury apartment.

So far, the quake has taken it easy on political leaders. So far, no big or memorable gaffes. In fact, politicians probably rose in public esteem, both individually and collectively.

The winning formula seemed to be a blend of being visible, reassuring, sincere and empathic.

Vice President Dan Quayle may have given the most strained and implausible performance. But hardly anyone doubted that President Bush's feelings welled up from the gut. He didn't need a speech writer. "Jesus," was plenty enough.

Gov. George Deukmejian has never been more visible or reassuring. We learned he had practiced for just this horrible day. But he seemed utterly natural, telling relief agency bureaucrats to follow their hearts and not worry about the petty details. He made his anger personal. Why didn't someone tell him about this rickety freeway before?

For the political system, this is just the start, though. Everybody who ever took a vote out of the Bay Area is on the hook to produce in the relief effort.

This, Mayor Art Agnos says, is the "administrative phase" of the disaster. "Now, people are starting to think about what they are going to do with the rest of their lives."

And that brings blame to mind.

Celebrity personal-injury attorney Melvin Belli is not rushing to judgment on damages, you understand. "But when you get a disaster like this, they can go way up there," he says. "They could go into the billions, yes."

Certainly there will be wrongful-death claims against the government in the collapse of the Nimitz Freeway. Belli suggests "some legal responsibility" may extend further. Perhaps all the way to contractors who installed gas, sewer and electrical lines through the landfill of the Marina District.

Maybe it should not surprise us, but few people wanted to shoulder blame themselves. Small decisions one after the other at the ballot box for a generation have taken a toll on the can-do spirit, not to mention the infrastructure. But does this explain why a freeway crumbles at rush hour?

Many institutions, though, quiver before the roving finger of blame.

Building inspectors in San Francisco now give the public just a number, not their names. One Caltrans engineer was asked to identify the weak spots elsewhere in the state freeway system. "I know what you want," he replied icily. "You want a 'sue-me list.' And I'm not going to give it to you."

Don't be misled. Not everyone is growing somber and humorless.

A story sure to live in legend is of Bruce McCampbell. He lives in the remote mountains of Santa Cruz County, where the quake tore a gash through his yard. As the San Francisco Examiner tells it, McCampbell turned to the woman he is divorcing, pointed toward a ravine and declared: "This is your half."

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