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Getting Back to Business After the Earthquake

Content appeared in Stanford Business magazine in February 1990.

The sunny, warm weather was almost too perfect for the annual student-faculty cocktail party on Tuesday, October 17, 1989 — balmy for the middle of autumn. MBA students, professors, and staff members had begun to gather in the plaza between the main business school building and the new Edmund W. Littlefield Management Center even before the 5:15 p.m. scheduled start of the special LPF (Liquidity Preference Function). Inside the two buildings, things seemed slow and quiet, perhaps because the end of the school day was near, or perhaps because the cloudless sky and T-shirt temperatures had already lured people away. Only a few MBA classes were still in session. In one of them, a small-business course being taught by Lecturer James Collins, the students were in the midst of a discussion when the first energy waves of the earthquake passed through the main building. A young woman paused in mid-sentence as her classmates let out a collective, groaning “Wooohhh.”

The room began to move and sway, at first just a little and then violently. A few of the students attempted to duck momentarily under the narrow desks, while others instinctively rose from their seats and raced out the door, heading for the nearest exit. The fierceness of the shaking made it difficult to stand and move and some people were knocked down.

The motion immediately set off the building’s fire alarms, whose piercing howls only heightened the feeling of things totally out of control. The building itself began to groan and grunt loudly as the reinforced concrete shear walls and columns labored to hold the structure together. In seconds, cracks began multiplying by the hundreds on the walls, looking like a giant network of spider webs. Paint peeled and plaster popped.

In the J.Hugh Jackson Business Library, located in the main building, librarians watched in shock as tall shelves, each loaded with thousands of pounds of books, swayed uncontrollably back and forth. A lucky student darted out from between the suddenly malicious stacks just seconds before they began tipping over and smashing into one another, row after row, like dominoes.

The top floors rapidly began to resemble a battle zone, as books were flung off shelves, computers and typewriters were tossed furiously on the floor, and ceiling tiles and light fixtures were heaved from their moorings. People crawled under their desks, crouched next to walls,and sought shelter in doorways. Everywhere on campus, the fearsome energy of the quake taunted and threatened the structures and the people in them. The old unreinforced masonry buildings of the historic quad came close to pulling apart, while nearby a giant chunk of stone flew off the old chemistry building and completely smashed an auto below. In Memorial Church, stones began to crumble and the tile mosaics on the rotunda began peeling off; the tiled wing of an angel descended to the floor, destroying the wooden pews but missing the people who had been there moments before.

Then the earthquake stopped just as suddenly as it had begun.

The sun still shone, the afternoon heat lingered. Yet no one who had been through it would ever be quite the same. The earthquake of October 17, 1989, encompasses two powerful stories. The first is about an awesome natural force — calibrated at 7.1 on the Richter scale and lasting a mere 15 to 20 seconds — that swept through the San Francisco Bay Area, causing damage and injury, destruction and death with a startling swiftness and a terrifying indifference. The second is about how people dealt with the aftermath of the quake. This story focuses specifically on the reactions of one small community, Stanford GSB, and how quickly it returned to a life approaching normal, despite major dislocations and inconveniences, and despite some lingering tension and apprehension.

Stanford GSB was in one way enormously lucky during the Loma Prieta earthquake, named after the mountain in the Santa Cruz range that sat atop the quake’s epicenter. Despite the savageness of the shaking, only a few minor injuries were reported by people who were in the buildings at the time. “It is nothing short of a miracle,” exclaimed Dean Robert K. Jaedicke in a letter to alumni. The school’s main building, however, was not so fortunate. The damage was so extensive that the top three floors, including the Jackson Library, had to be closed for months for repairs. In contrast, the Edmund W. Littlefield Management Center, completed in 1988 and built to meet today’s rigorous seismic construction code, was spared all but cosmetic damage. It was open for business as usual the day after the quake.

As the new year began, the quake was becoming a distant occurrence. A near-normal rhythm was quickly restored at the school after the initial shock, though the daily routines of most people were altered — some more than others because so much of the main building remained shut down. Surprisingly, the exterior of the main building appears unscarred, looking exactly as it did before the quake hit. The only outward signs that something happened in October are the scurrying construction workers with their noisy equipment, and a few telltale yellow plastic caution ropes that still block access to unsafe areas. Inside, however, the deception of the exterior view becomes clear, as large areas of the interior are still under construction and unusable.

In fact, this pattern of disruption will continue at the school over the next several years. Plans call for a new round of construction to get under way this summer in order to make the main building more quake resistant. And looming portentously over all is the sizable and unanticipated financial burden of the repairs — still estimated to run into the millions of dollars — that will confront the school over the next several years. Despite the problems, progress is being made to bring life completely back to normal. For example: The first phase of the repair and cleanup effort in the main building was nearing completion in mid-January. Every floor experienced damage of one sort or another, though the repair effort became progressively more formidable on higher floors.

On the top floor, for example, special crew first removed asbestos exposed when ceilings collapsed. Other workers then replaced ceiling tiles and light fixtures and braced them to resist falling again in future quakes. Window frames that had bowed out of position were fixed. Another crew restored weakened concrete shear walls. Lastly, new carpeting was installed, damaged furniture and equipment were repaired or replaced, and heavy objects such as file cabinets were bolted to walls to resist toppling over in future shakes.

Beginning in mid-January and continuing through February, displaced staff, faculty, Sloan fellows, and PhD students were being allowed to move back into their regular rooms and offices in the top three floors of the main building as repair and cleanup work was completed. Several dozen offices and close to 200 people had to be relocated to temporary quarters because of the extensive damage. Every available space in the main building, in Littlefield, and in three nearby trailers was put to use as an office for someone. For example, the Office of Development, forced out of its first-floor office, found refuge in a seminar room on the ground floor of the main building. As many as a half-dozen people have been squeezed into the small room, along with makeshift desks, computers, and telephones. Several other development staff members worked out of Encina Hall, obliging them to commute back and forth frequently to their “main” office. Chuck Sizemore, assistant dean for development and external relations, used a nearby office borrowed from the Office of News and Publications. Sizemore and the development staff members are slated to move back into their regular offices in February.

The library, which was the single hardest hit facility at the school and probably the most extensively damaged library on campus, may be partially reopened sometime during the spring quarter. Librarians hope to have the first floor back in limited operation by then. The first floor contains the reference section, reserve readings, periodicals, new books, and other materials. The devastated second floor, which houses most of the book collection, will remain closed indefinitely. Library Director Bela Gallo said the damage was so sweeping that it took him and his staff a while to realize the full extent of the massive cleanup and reorganization problem that they face.

“It’s not just a matter of picking up books and putting them back on the shelves,” he said.”Every shelf has been destroyed and must be replaced. The library staff began by removing books and other materials from the broken and toppled stacks on the first floor, piling them in order on the floor, and then disassembling the ruined shelving. The task is particularly daunting because the majority of the library’s 300,000 cataloged items were tossed to the ground during the quake or left on shelves that are leaning at dangerous angles. Adding to the mess are the ceiling tiles and light fixtures that fell on top of the stacks. Only after the damage is cleared and new shelves are installed can librarians begin the job of reshelving the books and materials. A further complication is the plan to add new shear walls throughout the library this summer to make it more resistant to shaking during future quakes. The new walls mean the library will have to be entirely reconfigured as well as completely shut down again during the construction process. In the meantime, business school students and faculty have access to a wide array of library materials — many of them available via new electronic storage systems through a temporary office set up in the Littlefield Center.

Student life returned to near-normal with remarkable speed. The quake cased only minor disruptions of the school’s academic programs, mainly through cancellation of two days of classes in October. Because of the way the school schedules classes, each course lost only one class meeting. Some extracurricular activities also were canceled after the quake, but many were rescheduled. The winter quarter began as scheduled on January 9. Although classes and activities were soon back in business, the daily habits of many MBA students have changed dramatically because of the closing of the library and the temporary conversion of many seminar rooms to office space. Students now seem to spend less time at the school each day simply because there are fewer places for them to study. PhD students have been especially inconvenienced. Many of them were completely shut out of their study carrels in the library as well as their top floor offices, which were exposed to asbestos during the quake.

Most full-time faculty members were able to resume their normal teaching and research activities within days of the quake, because the majority of them have their offices in the relatively unscathed. However, part-time, emeriti, and some visiting faculty members, whose offices are located in the main building, found themselves working out of unfamiliar temporary offices or at home long after the quake hit.

The emotional aftereffects of the quake seem to be ebbing as the event recedes farther into the past. The extreme jitteriness, anxiety, and nightmares experienced by many people in the days and weeks following the quake have begun to lessen. Shortly after the quake, the school scheduled group counseling sessions to help the community members grapple with their feelings. A large number of staff members showed up at one session, though a similar session for MBA students was sparsely attended. Everyone also had access to individual counseling sessions, if needed. Overall, students reacted calmly to the ordeal. “I am very impressed with the resilience of our students, who came through the episode with hardly any problems,” said Geri Gould, student affairs officer for the MBA Program. In the days after the quake, she noticed higher levels of student frustration and anger at seemingly minor inconveniences, such as the temporary absence of a copy machine. But no one seemed to be unable to cope.

Months after the quake, there are still discernible aftereffects. A number of people at the school still shudder at every unexpected noise, and some staff members have expressed their apprehension at having to return to the upper floors of the main building, which had experienced the most violent shaking. The most common post-quake behavior also has all but ended: the need to talk about the episode with anyone and everyone. For weeks after the quake, every conversation in the Bay Area either began or concluded with, “And where were you when it happened?”

Beyond the essential repair and cleanup work, school officials are planning to structurally reinforce the main building so that it can withstand a quake of similar or greater magnitude without having to be partially closed again for months. If the seismic retrofitting project wins University approval, work will begin this summer. The construction will mean another lengthy period of dislocation and inconvenience for members of the business school community, as entire offices are again moved to temporary quarters and classrooms and study facilities such as the computing center and library are closed. Plans call for the project to be handled in two stages; the half of the building that contains the library will go first, while the other half of the building will be worked on in the summer of 1991.

The effort to get the business school back in business began just over 12 hours after the 5:04 p.m. earthquake struck the campus. On the morning after, administrators set up a command post at tables on the lawn because the two buildings were closed until a University inspection team, led by structural engineers, could check them for signs of serious structural damage. While the Littlefield Center passed the inspection easily, the team found significant amounts of damage in the main building and declared it off limits for safety reasons. Employees were allowed to go inside for a few minutes to retrieve work items from all but the asbestos contaminated top floor. They were then asked to work outside or at home.

Almost immediately, the school assembled its own strike force to put the building back in service. Contractors were retained to begin looking over the repair work to be done, and a special asbestos cleanup team began testing the entire building for evidence of contamination. The school also hired a structural engineering firm to do a thorough assessment of the main building. The firm, San Francisco-based Rutherford and Chekene, had done the structural engineering work for the Littlefield Center, as well as other recent seismic retrofitting projects on the campus. The engineers found the basement and ground floors of the main building safe to reoccupy, thus permitting classes to begin again on Monday, October 23. However, they decided to keep the top three floors off limits. Although not in danger of collapsing, the top floors were judged to be unsafe because another large quake or aftershock could cause already weakened ceilings, light fixtures, and other debris to fall down upon anyone in the area.

The repair work, which commenced within abut a week of the quake, has taken somewhat longer than originally estimated. Not only was the damage widespread, much of it was subtle and insidious, increasing the complexity and scope of the repairs. One of the key repair objectives has been to restrengthen the building’s reinforced concrete shear walls, which safeguard the entire structure by preventing destructive sideways shaking during a quake. Cracks that have marginally weakened the shear walls are being injected with an extremely powerful epoxy resin in order to restore the walls to their pre-quake level of strength. Because the resin is actually stronger than the surrounding concrete, the walls should not crack in the same place during another quake. However, the process has moved slowly because the cracks are so numerous and so narrow. The high-pressure injection technology, which had not been used before in a quake-damaged structure, had to be fine-tuned along the way to get the job done. Although the cracks may be subtle, the process of locating them under the plaster for repairs is anything but. Hallways and stairwells throughout the building temporarily look like giant abstract murals because of the three- to six-inch-wide strips of plaster that were cleared off the shear walls in zig-zag patterns that trace the path of the cracks. In other areas, plaster was chipped completely away from the walls, giving the hallways the appearance of a wartime bunker. Adding to the messiness, a coating of fine plaster dust covered nearly every surface in the main building.

In contrast to all the activity in the main building, the Littlefield Center awaits a repair job sometime in the future. The damage there consists mainly of unsightly though non-structural cracking and buckling of plaster.

The existence of a second, sturdier business school building is one bit of luck that saved the school from what could have been a monumental disaster. The Littlefield Center was designed to house most of the faculty, who used to be located in offices on the top two floors of the main building — precisely the ones closed for repairs. The idea of professors shut out of their offices for months is a problem that school officials are glad they didn’t have to deal with. General Mills CEO H. Bruce Atwater, MBA ’54, who is also chairman of the school’s Advisory Council, made reference to Dean Jaedicke’s decision to erect a second building at an Advisory Council meeting a few weeks after the quake: “We knew that Bob was looking toward the future when he built the Littlefield Center, but we didn’t know until now exactly what he had in mind.”

“The earthquake also demonstrated that the school was not as well prepared for the inevitable as it could have been. Within a few weeks afterward, however, a special earthquake preparedness committee had been formed to develop specific suggestions for what to do when a quake hits. As part of the effort, the committee has developed written suggestions for specific actions to take during a quake, and the suggestions have already been distributed to all students, faculty, and staff. Special viewings of a PBS documentary on earthquake preparedness are also being scheduled, and a video that focuses exclusively on quake safety in the business school is being filmed in-house. In the future, orientation sessions for incoming MBA students will address the earthquake safety procedures. The committee is also finishing work on a manual that will help key staff members to deal quickly and systematically with any kind of emergency. “It is clear that we can do more to prepare for the next earthquake and other emergency situations, both as individuals and as a community,” Dean Jaedicke said in a letter to students, faculty, and staff. Our goal is the safety of everyone at the GSB.”

The financial impact of the quake on the school is still being tallied, as the repair and retrofitting projects continue into the future. The final total won’t be known for months, but the estimates run into the millions of dollars. The costliest part of the project will be the strengthening of the main building, followed by the purchase of new library shelves and equipment, and the basic repairs to the two buildings.

School officials are still studying ways to pay the bills. There is a good chance that the school will receive some federal and state disaster relief funding, according to Paul Johnson, associate dean for administration. Alumni and friends of the school also have been asked to contribute. A special fund-raising effort at the end of the year raised about $200,000 from alumni, said Assistant Dean for Development Chuck Sizemore. Meanwhile, Dean Jaedicke has assured students that he will not pass along the costs of the quake to them in the form of increased tuition.

And what of the next earthquake? Earthquake experts at Stanford and the U.S. Geological Survey in the nearby Menlo Park have said the probability of a destructive quake on the Peninsula section of the San Andreas Fault —directly behind Stanford — is much higher than they previously estimated. Equally dangerous is the Hayward Fault, which runs right through populous East Bay communities. For both faults, scientists estimate a 50 percent probability of a 7 or higher magnitude quake over the next 30 years. The two faults have the potential to cause even more damage and destruction in the Bay Area than the Loma Prieta quake, which was farther away and centered in a relatively unpopulated mountain area. Yet life goes on. Everyone who lives in Northern California is aware of the risk — now more so than ever. The feelings experienced during an earthquake are akin to the human reaction to excruciating physical pain — intense relief at its passing, and nagging fear of its return. People manage by storing an awareness and respect of earthquakes somewhere in the back of the mind, and then get on with their daily business. Stanford GSB, too, is getting back to business after the quake, as well as preparing for the next one.”

The earthquake has been a blow to the school in the short term, but it won’t be a permanent handicap,” said Dean Jaedicke in a letter to alumni. “The long-term outlook, however, is bright because of extraordinary efforts and commitment of the Stanford GSB community. Many here on campus have worked long hours to reopen the school and reestablish a daily routine. People are doing whatever needs to be done and are volunteering to do more. I feel it is an honor and privilege to be part of this community.