25 Years Later: The legacy of the Loma Prieta quake at Stanford

When the Loma Prieta earthquake shook campus 25 years ago it damaged campus structures and forced students and classes to relocate. Once they'd cleared the rubble, faculty and students took up the challenge of devising better methods for understanding the physics of earthquakes, and designing buildings that could withstand the powerful forces.

At the epicenter of Loma Prieta

On a recent fall morning, Stanford geophysicist Greg Beroza hiked through the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park to arrive at a brown signpost on which the word "Epicenter" was printed in all caps. Today, the marker is the only indication that this tranquil redwood forest, located about 10 miles from Santa Cruz, Calif., was the source of the largest earthquake to strike the Bay Area in more than 80 years. But in 1989, the 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta quake that originated approximately 10 miles beneath this signpost triggered landslides throughout the forest and violently shook and even toppled trees. "These tall redwoods like the one to my left were here in 1989, and they would have shaken like crazy," Beroza said. "It would have been quite a ride for anything that was up in the treetops."

Beroza, a professor in the School of Earth Sciences, is one of several researchers in the school studying earthquakes today. Along with Paul Segall, Eric Dunham, Simon Klemperer, George Hilley and others, Beroza is contributing to an improved understanding of earthquakes and helping foster new ideas for saving lives and property not only in the Bay Area, but also in other heavily populated regions around the world.

At the close of a busy workday in the fall of 1989, a fault line buried miles beneath the quiet heart of a redwood forest near Santa Cruz ruptured, generating devastating seismic waves that sped across the Bay Area. The 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake, which occurred 25 years ago on Oct. 17, ended decades of seismic tranquility in the region and was a wakeup call to the region to prepare for even more devastating shocks in the future.

The quake disrupted a World Series Game, collapsed a double-deck freeway in Oakland and tumbled an upper section of the Bay Bridge. Ultimately the quake killed more than 60 people and caused more than $5 billion in damages. At Stanford, more than 200 campus structures were damaged, some beyond repair. Building restoration took more than a decade to complete and cost nearly $160 million. While there were no deaths or serious injuries on campus, there were close calls. Concrete falling from the Old Chemistry Building, for example, crushed a Ford Granada just seconds after its driver, a chemistry graduate student, left the car.

The 1989 temblor provoked an artistic response on campus that took the form of a 320-foot-long sculpture constructed from stones gathered from university buildings destroyed by the quake. It also spurred a new wave of earthquake research, some of it conducted by geophysicists in the university's School of Earth Sciences, which has led to fresh insights about earthquakes and their aftershocks, as well as more accurate methods for pinpointing their epicenters.

His Lucky Day

At Stanford, the '89 quake spared lives – barely.


The Stanford campus and Bay Area in the aftermath of Loma Prieta.

Stone River

Art arises from buildings destroyed in the 1906 and 1989 quakes.