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Catastrophic Anarchy

The closest thing to a Utopian society I have been in is the aftermath of major earthquakes. For a brief moment, people are humbled, and there is a thankfulness for life, itself. Possessions are seen as transitory in this light. The homeless are not arrested, police seem to disappear...Santa Cruz and Northridge Earthquakes taught me a lot...
The closest thing to a Utopian society I have been in is the aftermath of major earthquakes. For a brief moment, people are humbled, and there is a thankfulness for life, itself. Possessions are seen as transitory in this light. The homeless are not arrested, police seem to disappear...

Catastrophic Anarchy
By Kirsten Anderberg (

The closest thing to a Utopian society I have been in, believe it or not, is the aftermath of major earthquakes. For a brief moment, people are humbled, and there is a thankfulness for life, itself. Possessions are seen as transitory in this light. Most people, in the first 2-4 days after a major earthquake, are in such shock, they are known to say they do not care if they lost their homes, cars, or stuff, they are thankful instead for their lives, and the lives of their loved ones being spared. I have had the odd experience of seeing 3 of America’s most costly and deadly earthquakes firsthand, and the odd anarchist/cooperative aftermath that ensues without telephones, electricity, traffic lights, police, 911, individual housing…

In the resultant isolation this individualist society has landed, people in apartments often do not know who lives next door to them! The everyday cruelty of evictions/land ownership, wage slaving/class stratification, capitalism/exploitation, etc., create a dog-eat-dog world we take for granted. But I have found when a whole city is shaken to its knees in fear, priorities rearrange, albeit temporarily, and it is refreshing.

In the 1989 Loma Prieta Quake, centered outside Santa Cruz, Ca. (a 7.1 on the Richter scale), shockwaves rumbled underground with fervor. Most houses’ chimneys fell off, plate glass windows shattered, walls ripped apart, bridges fell, and the main commercial street in downtown Santa Cruz was in ruins. As I walked downtown after the quake in shock, looking at the incredible devastation, I saw a street person I recognized ( I am a street musician). I was overcome with passion and wanted to run up to him and hug him, even though I do not particularly like him, nor have I had any previous personal interactions with him. It was his familiarity that made me want to bolt towards him. Everything I used to recognize around me was gone, so to see him, that familiar face, for a second, gave me comfort.

The first evening after the Loma Prieta Quake (it hit at 5 PM), people all over town shared food, blankets, water, toilet paper, candles and flashlights, childcare, cooking, dishwashing, etc. We all hung out outside, many slept outside, as it was warm, and it was like a big slumber party. I was at a house with a pool, and we all slept outside around the pool that night, with one table with candles and a radio that had people coming and going all night. Many neighbors met each other for the first time the night of the quake. We got news that the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland had fatally collapsed by radio news at about 9 PM, and everyone just looked at each other, and cried silently. There were also rumors that people had died on the main street in Santa Cruz, which ended up being true. Three did die in the Mall wreckage. And that put a really dark, humbling cloud over all of Santa Cruz. Three days after the quake in Santa Cruz, our landlord sent each one of the tenants in my apartment complex a pound of chocolates from See’s Candies, just to celebrate us all being alive and the building not collapsing. Never have I had a landlord randomly send me a pound of candy to celebrate my being alive before!

Likewise, business and government acted communally. The City of Santa Cruz gave out free building permits to facilitate repairs. In the immediate time period after the quake but before 911 was up and running, ambulances rode around the streets and were waived down for help. Tree specialists offered free tree repacking for tall trees, such as palms, that swayed so widely during the quake, that they now were in unstable holes. The bases needed repacking for stability. Banks offered emergency loans. Motels offered cut rates for quake victims who lost housing. Free counseling was offered at schools, churches, etc. The Red Cross gave out food. The newspapers had NO ADS. And in 1971, when I was 10, after the Sylmar 6.8 quake, the National Guard gave away gas to get people to evacuate the San Fernando Valley floor, as the Van Norman Dam had broken, and 80,000 people had to leave, but there was no electricity to pump gas, so they took care of that.

In the 6.8 Northridge Earthquake, on Jan. 17, 1994, Los Angeles was briefly humanized also. I not only met my neighbor, but bonded with him, as we both entered our collapsed and red-tagged/condemned building at dawn (the quake hit at 4 AM) to get essentials together, in a buddy system, grabbing items such as car keys, wallet, shoes, etc., in between aftershocks that could kill us in there. We ran in, we ran out, and then shook for minutes in each others’ arms, drenched with sweat, once out of there alive, in the parking lot. Every apartment building on my block was condemned the day of the quake, so the block became a virtual ghost town immediately, which was very bizarre. It looked like Chernobyl looks, how everything is left where it was, pots on stove, toys on table, everything left there, in a hurry…like a story with no ending. So, I drove to my best friend in high school’s house, 20 years after we met as kids, for help. When I pulled up to her house around 10 AM, 6 hours after the quake hit, she was standing on her lawn, saying, “What took you so long?!? She took my son in to play with her kids, and she and I talked about our narrow escape from death earlier that morning. She lived on a residential street full of single family houses with pools. The first night, all the houses took the food out of their freezers and fired up grills. There was a huge block party, with tons of food (the adrenaline of quakes and aftershocks make you really hungry), and everyone socialized until dark when we went back into our homes, fearful as adults of the aftershocks that kept on coming, but tending to our children’s fears mostly. Houses with pools shared their water resource with the block so we all had chlorinated water, not for drinking, but for dish and hand washing, which you really need with so many children around. We also used the water from pools to make toilets flush by pouring water into the backs of them. People were sharing all kinds of tools, and expertise…it looked like a Little House on the Prairie rerun, with families pitching in to help one another with construction, sharing supplies, tools and labor, happily, without exchange of money.

Another very interesting phenomenon is how quakes impact the homeless. In Santa Cruz after the quake, the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium was opened up as a Red Cross emergency shelter with cots. Many lost their identification in the chaos, so things like food stamps and vouchers were being given out without identification. And homeless shelters could not check out prior residency without identification or phones. So the recently homeless from the quake, were joined by the regularly homeless, in the shelter and people began to complain that the homeless were using the shelter! Apparently these shelters were only for people who had homes to lose prior to the quake. That is an odd distinction. For a brief moment of a few days, no one (I would hope) was arrested for camping or homeless activity after these major quakes. I have been to the Santa Cruz jail for sleeping in a school bus converted into a home, and committing the crime of “camping,? but that would not be a crime the few days after the quake in 1989. As a matter of fact, people set up tent cities in local parks all across Los Angeles after the Northridge quake in 1994, and rather than arrest them, the City of Los Angeles sent in portable toilets!

As I have said, the first one or two days after a debilitating quake, people are unusually nice to each other and seem to value life itself, above possessions and profits, so there is a collective spirit. But with aftershocks eating at everyone’s nerves, and endless adrenaline in the blood stream, after about 3-4 days, people seem to lose the oblivious thankfulness for life itself, and begin to get pissed their stuff is ruined or gone. There are inconveniences such as freeway impasses due to broken highway segments and overpasses that suddenly end in the sky after collapsing, there is no water, or electricity, no work or school is in session, life is at a standstill, and people start to get agitated at the uncertainty of the immediate future. Life begins to return to profits and nothing for free anymore, back to the individual consciousness, within 3-4 days. It is a shame that it takes a natural catastrophe sometimes, to humble humans collectively into profound appreciation for life itself, above profit and possessions. But it is even more of a shame that most humans only seem to retain that simple thankfulness for a few days after surviving a near-fatal natural disaster.

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Re: Catastrophic Anarchy

Natural disasters are great because they bring the rich down a peg. So much for that fancy house you had built on the backs of underpaid and uninsured immigrant labor, Richie Rich! Nice shopping mall, Mr. Bigshot. NOT. Enjoy your rubble and see how the rest of us live outdoors all the time already. Learn to live within nature instead of apart from it.

Whats a little inconvenience if it helps bring down this failed capitalist systematic exploitation. Your mother Earth brought you into this world, and she can take you out!


Re: Catastrophic Anarchy

Kirsten ,Great article but ,just in case, please don't come to Ireland.

Re: Catastrophic Anarchy

So thatexplains why the memory of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake in Santa Cruz remains a positive experience for me.

Re: Catastrophic Anarchy

In regards to "the poetry justice of disaster": Some of us were born and raised here without anything, and worked hard all our lives to build our own home, not on the backs of anyone but ourselves. This simple-minded demonizing of home owners is as stupid as the Dubya types who villainize alternative lifestyle folks, like yourself. Of course, without this thinking, you'd have to grow up, and stop blaming our cruel society for all your problems. I overcame poverty, four suicides in my family, child abuse, drug addiction, mental illness , and still trim trees for a living in my mid-fifties. No big deal. So quit the fucking whining, and do something!


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