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Looking Back at ‘89 Loma Prieta Quake, Planning for Next One

Scientists Say San Francisco '89 Earthquake Wasn't 'The Big One' 2:17

The World Series broadcast turned to static 25 years ago today, announcing to viewers that the baseball game’s host, San Francisco, was in trouble.

The 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake then killed 63 people, injured 3,000 and left the Bay Area with pancaked freeways and a stunning collapse on the Bay Bridge.

“I noticed that all of a sudden, the truck leaped from one lane,” recalls TV engineer Don Sharp. He was crossing the bridge on that day in 1989 when all of the sudden, “the bridge was swinging a little bit.” Then, behind him, a 50-foot section of it just collapsed. “And I see all this dust and all this debris coming down.”

“It was a big quake,” notes University of California, Berkley’s Richard Allen. “But it was a big quake 60 miles south of much of the urban population — San Francisco.”

Image: San Francisco's Marina District Fire after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake
Fire consumes homes in the Marina District after the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 1989. Bob Pepping / AP

Geologists now believe that every day brings the Bay Area closer to another major quake, and it could be far bigger than the 6.0-magnitude quake that shook up the Napa Valley in August.

Since the Loma Prieta earthquake, officials have been racing against the clock to strengthen infrastructure before the next big one hits. They’ve been requiring that vulnerable buildings be strengthened, even shaming owners into compliance. Bridges have been reinforced and a new eastern span was added to the Bay Bridge that engineer Brian Maroney is confident can handle the rattling of a violent quake, unlike in the 1989 collapse. “It's constructed to maintain, to sustain or survive.”

The threat, according to scientists, is mainly along three fault lines, including the Hayward fault that runs more than 50 miles along the eastern side of the bay and through San Francisco’s suburbs.

During a visit to the area, David Schwartz of the U.S. Geological Survey said he was standing on what’s considered, “probably the most seismically dangerous fault in the Bay Area.”

And the damage from a quake in that suburban area could be significant. NBC News has learned that disaster planners believe a 7.9-magnitude quake could cause 7,000 deaths, while leaving 300,000 people homeless and 1.8 million homes without drinkable water.

Image: Loma Prieta earthquake
A California Highway Patrol officer checks the damage to cars that fell when the upper deck of the Bay Bridge collapsed onto the lower deck after the Loma Prieta earthquake. George Nikitin / AP

But there are things people can do to improve their odds of survival. “The more prepared you are at home, the better it is for our emergency responders to be able to actually do what they have to do once the big one hits,” said Anne Kronenberg, executive director of San Francisco’s Office of Emergency Management said.

Even something as simple as a nine-second warning from a new alert system that was being tested during the Napa quake this summer could save countless lives, officials say. It may not sound like much time, but Allen said those seconds matter in a quake. “As an individual you can do the normal things — duck, cover and hold on under a sturdy table.”