Japan Quake Shakes Loose Memories Of U.S. Disasters

I'm sure we all have been watching the horrifying pictures from Japan — the prolonged shaking of one of the strongest earthquakes in history — documented by people who somehow had the presence of mind to grab cameras as the event began.

We've seen the awful power of the tsunami — a wave of seawater more than 20 feet high sweeping into the flat green farmland around the city of Sendai — pushing boats and cars and houses inland, and then dragging them back into the sea.

And now Japan waits to see what will happen to nuclear power plants on that northeast coast, and if the physical damage caused by the earthquake will cascade into a serious nuclear accident.

All of this is bringing back images closer to home: the houses and cars piled up by the onrushing and then retreating tsunami reminds us all of the floods caused by Hurricane Katrina, where we saw the same heaps of houses.

I have never been in a strong earthquake, but in 1989 I was one of the reporters sent to cover the aftermath of one — the Loma Prieta earthquake in California.

In San Francisco, we could see damage caused when the earthquake rippled through the city — cracked pavements, downed power lines, occasional geysers caused by broken water mains.

I saw the big evidence of the quake — the horrifying collapsed freeway, the big department stores on Union Square, still standing, but with every single plate-glass window shattered. But my most vivid memories are of smaller things.

I remember meeting a family sitting on the porch of their home, a red brick townhouse. Police had told them to leave, that the house was not stable, but they couldn't force the front door to shut and they stayed to protect their home. One of the daughters walked inside with me — and I've always remembered how horrified she was that things were just slightly askew. The walls were not quite straight, the floor dipping in places.

I remember the aftershocks, dozens of them, coming all day and all night while we were there. Sometimes we felt a sharp jerk, other times I felt my weight shift from my left foot to my right and I knew that I had not moved — the ground had.

There is something so profoundly upsetting about the earth moving that way that I've never forgotten the feeling — and it is just the smallest part of what people are living through in Japan right now.

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