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THE BAY AREA QUAKE : Pressure Points : WHAT WORKED, WHAT DIDN'T, AND WHY : UTILITIES : Ruptured Utility Lines Put Thousands at a Loss

October 20, 1989|STEVEN R. CHURM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Harriet Ralston woke in the darkness of her Santa Cruz Mountains home, picked her way across the debris-strewn kitchen floor to the sink, searched for a glass and turned on the faucet. Her reward: a few drops of water.

It had been a day and half since a powerful earthquake, centered not far from her Los Gatos home, had struck, and still no running water. Not to mention electricity or gas service.

"All I wanted was a drink of water, and instinctively, I went to the tap," she said. "I was half asleep, and just plain forgot the water was out. You don't realize how much you take for granted."

Ralston, most certainly, was not alone. Hundreds of thousands of Bay Area residents and businesses shared the loss of the most essential of services in the hours and days following the 15-second temblor.

The quake left cities ringing the bay in darkness. Roughly 1 million residential customers lost power; in some outlying areas, it may be days before lights replace candles. Scores of water lines broke or ruptured, triggering a run on bottled water as tens of thousands of residents coped with shortages.

Another 50,000 people were without gas service, and deliveries of oil and gasoline products were halted while pipelines were inspected for damage.

It was a region living hand to mouth, anxiously waiting for the 20th Century to return.

Only the telephone system seemed to escape widespread problems. Although several of Pacific Bell's Bay Area offices were damaged, none of the critical computer components or switching equipment was wrecked. Service to the company's 2.5 million Bay Area customers was never down--only interrupted by the crush of calls from friends and relatives outside the region.

In the first hours after the quake, an astounding 47.1 million long distance calls--nearly three times the average number--were placed to the Bay Area. It was an unprecedented overload that prompted phone company officials to make a public appeal to outsiders to stop calling the quake zone. But the heartstrings and worry proved too strong, and the calls kept coming. Long distance operators were forced to block many of the incoming calls so residents could call out.

Those in the quake's strike zone found pay phones quicker and more reliable. News reporters, shop owners and businessmen alike waited in long lines on darkened street corners in San Francisco for the phones.

"I spent 45 minutes trying to get a line out of my office," said Roger Witken, a stock broker who works in San Francisco's financial district. "I came down here, and in one try, I reached my wife in Oakland. I'm never going to curse a pay phone again."

Unlike large businesses where phone calls are often routed through an in-house switchboard before entering the general phone network, pay phones are directly linked with the phone company's main equipment, said Pacific Bell spokeswoman Linda Bonniksen.

"Every time a call has to go through another switch, another layer, there's a greater chance for delays," she said.

Delays in restoring services are bound to be a way of life for days in the Bay Area, especially in outlying towns.

By early Thursday, power was back on in most of San Francisco, except the fire-ravaged Marina District. Traffic signals, hotel marquees and street lamps returned Wednesday to brighten the night. Gone were the pedestrians who bravely used flashlights to direct traffic through city intersections.

In some neighborhoods, normalcy appeared to have taken root again.

But in towns near the quake's epicenter south of San Jose, or in the East Bay counties of Alameda and Contra Costa, the recovery was slow.

About 150,000 customers of the East Bay Municipal Utility District face water shortages for another week because the quake ruptured a 60-inch line. The break has been bypassed temporarily with a smaller main, but it provides only about half the normal supply.

"We are asking people to halt all car washing and garden use of water," utility spokeswoman Ida McClendon said.

A major sewage-treatment plant in Santa Clara County, the Rinconda Water Treatment Plant, was seriously damaged and remained closed, although it posed no immediate health threat, officials said.

In Los Gatos, water supplies grew critical. A pipeline leading from Lexington Reservoir, a major supply for nearly 30,000 people, was broken, and city officials urged residents to take further steps to conserve water in an area already affected by the third year of drought conditions.

A day after the quake, 3,000 natural gas leaks had been identified and repaired.

The nationwide volume of long-distance calls swelled to 2 1/2 times normal between 8 p.m. and midnight EDT on Tuesday, to well over 40 million calls.

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