This year's "Great ShakeOut" is Oct. 16; the Loma Prieta earthquake happened Oct. 17, 1989
On Thursday, Oct. 16, — at 10:16 a.m. — the annual Great ShakeOut earthquake drill will ask people around the world to take cover for a minute, practicing what they might do in the case of a real quake. It’s estimated that more than 25 million people will participate in this year’s event, which is organized by the Southern California Earthquake Center.
This coming Friday marks the 25th anniversary of a Californian earthquake that was far from a drill.
On Oct. 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake hit the San Francisco area. A 7.1 on the Richter scale, it was the worst quake in the region since 1906’s legendary tremors. According to TIME’s coverage of the aftermath, it was the “costliest natural disaster in U.S. history” at the time, in terms of dollars. It was estimated that the earthquake would cost the area about $10 billion; the vast majority of affected homes were not covered by earthquake insurance and parts of the I-880 freeway had to be demolished. Some speculated that the residual costs of the quake would stunt the Bay Area’s growth as a financial and business region. A year later, the actual cost was adjusted down to a mere $6 billion, but many people rendered homeless by the event were still without a place to live.
Within five years, however, Loma Prieta had been matched by the 1994 Northridge earthquake in California; a year later, another major quake in Kobe, Japan, brought the topic back into the news (as on the cover of TIME, above). Though the damage from such extensive earthquakes seems like something that a simple drill can’t affect, that’s not actually the case. As TIME put it in the Jan. 30, 1995, issue:
Much of the property damage from earthquakes, however, and not a small number of injuries, result not from cracking buildings but from heavy objects flying around and slamming into human flesh. Homeowners can be far more earthquake savvy, securing furniture, TV sets, bookcases and especially water heaters to the walls. Fires in the wake of an earthquake often do more damage than the quake itself, and many a fire has been caused by a top-heavy water heater keeling over, ripping a gas line out of a cellar wall and breaking it in the process. There is little evidence that people are taking these simple precautions, however. Few of those living around major faults really believe an earthquake is likely to strike until it actually does–and then, of course, it is too late.
The potential for a disastrous earthquake is no different today than it was back then — but, 25 years after Loma Prieta, millions of people are trying to do something before it’s too late.