Years ago, there was a gentleman who worked at the front desk of the Peninsula Times Tribune in Palo Alto who was memorable for his demeanor. He always had a smile and a kind word. His name was Robert, as I recall. We undervalue people like this in our lives. But after the Loma Prieta quake hit on Oct. 17, 1989 — 28 years ago last week — I never saw him again. He quickly loaded up his car and moved away. Arizona, I believe. Or maybe it was Texas. Didn’t even say goodbye. He told those nearest to him that he could no longer live in earthquake country, and that was it.
And every day after that, when I passed his desk in that lobby, I felt his absence.
The memory of Robert came back last week as I thought of the earthquake anniversary and what is happening in the lives of many people in Sonoma County who have lost their homes in the recent firestorms. So many.
I have covered disasters in my time. Earthquakes, fires, floods, you name it. But this is the worst. This was the first time I didn’t have to go in search of victims. I already knew them by name.
We all do. Their contact information is already programmed into our cellphones, and their life stories are carved into our hearts. They are us.
This was driven home for me each time I entered The Press Democrat last week. It seemed I couldn’t pass without encountering someone I knew — sometimes two or three — who was waiting in line at the Local Assistance Center, which has opened on the first floor of our building at 427 Mendocino Ave. in Santa Rosa. One day, as I sat with a husband and wife who I have known for nearly 19 years to experience the process with them (very efficient), I realized I not only knew these two, but I knew the person across the table who was interviewing them. I also knew the couple sitting next to them — and a woman at the far end of the table.
There are so many things that these individuals and families need right now. Housing, clothes, transportation. But it occurs to me what they need as much as anything is to hear this from the rest of us: We need you. This community needs you back.
Maybe that sounds schmaltzy. I suppose it does. But my guess is we need to say it as much as they need to hear it.
We have talked so much about the loss of structures — 5,449 total residential losses, 35 rental and condominium losses, 601 commercial property losses. But we haven’t talked enough about the loss, or the potential loss, of people — of friends. It happens after crises like this. Believe me.
These are teachers, doctors, contractors, professors, police officers, business owners, firefighters, nurses, custodians, farmers, and, yes, even employees of local newspapers. We can ill afford to lose them. From what I can tell, they represent a broad spectrum of our community, crossing all demographics, all income brackets and all ages. Losing these households — nearly 5,500 total — would be like losing the entire city of Sonoma. It’s hard to fathom the crater that would leave behind.