Like millions of other Californians, Oxnard resident Jeanne LaFever never thought an earthquake would change her life as completely as did the Oct. 17 San Francisco temblor.
That quake killed her 22-year-old son, Derek Van Alstyne, plunging LaFever into grief and then into earthquake preparedness as a full-time job.
"Earthquakes didn't seem to have that much to do with me. But when this happened, I thought, 'What could be done to try and make some good come of this?' I really realized how much damage an earthquake can do," LaFever said.
LaFever, 42, is sounding the alarm on earthquakes wherever she can. She promotes earthquake safety to city councils and schools countywide. She and Tamara Holmes of Mill Valley helped start the Earthquake Reform Committee, a loosely knit, statewide lobbying group, at the end of October.
Holmes formed the group after her husband Ray, 50, a structural engineer and seismic expert, was killed in the collapse of a double-decked portion of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland. LaFever said she wanted to join Holmes in the crusade to toughen earthquake laws for buildings and structures after reading about her in a newspaper.
LaFever said her son, who had lived with his grandparents in New York for 18 years after she and his father divorced, was killed when the fourth floor of a brick warehouse exploded onto the street and buried his car in debris. Alstyne had moved to San Francisco six weeks earlier to take a job with Ziff-Davis Publishing. Four others died in the building's collapse.
LaFever echoes claims in lawsuits from families of other victims that the building's owners had been told by engineers that the warehouse was structurally hazardous. But because owners, under current state law, don't have to give engineering reports to city building inspectors and some warehouses aren't required to be placed on unsafe building lists, no one was warned of the danger, the suits claim.
"The owners were warned that it would be a nightmare in an earthquake. It's really unfair because those people knew it was unsafe and didn't do anything about it," LaFever said.
According to the state Seismic Safety Commission, there are an estimated 35,000 unreinforced masonry buildings in the state, with 2,200 in San Francisco alone. But LaFever pointed out that state law requires neither cities nor building owners to upgrade the potentially dangerous structures. Some cities have required such work, but it is politically unpopular, because such improvements are expensive.
"It's a really big mistake," LaFever said. "It's only a matter of time before an earthquake hits and they fall down."
Some of her alternatives may seem far-fetched. She advocates painting unsafe buildings red or Day-Glo orange and hanging warning signs on them if owners don't want to pay upgrading costs.
LaFever said she, Holmes and members of the state Seismic Safety Commission will join others in asking the Legislature to toughen the law on unreinforced masonry in early January.
Before earthquake preparedness turned LaFever's life around, she was a homemaker who cared for her two daughters--Athena, 10, and Amy, 9. Huge boxes overflowing with newspaper clippings on earthquakes now line her dining-room wall in the house where she has lived for 2 1/2 years with husband Syl, 42, and her two daughters. She regularly speaks to city councils and schools about earthquake preparedness.
LaFever said she has spoken with the Oxnard Parent Teachers Assn. and is trying to work with the elementary schools there to stock earthquake supplies and conduct periodic drills on safety procedures.
She said the schools need to conduct "hazard hunts" and look for any potential dangers inside buildings, such as things that could fall or fly through the air during an earthquake. Hazardous items include bookshelves not bolted to walls, filing cabinets near doorways, potted plants or heavy objects on shelves and glass windows near desks.
LaFever said glass should be replaced with clear plastic or covered with security film, which adheres to the glass and prevents it from shattering. She said "hazard hunts" are easily organized by the Red Cross or the county Office of Emergency Services.
LaFever also works with the Southern California Earthquake Preparedness Project in Los Angeles. The organization, which is trying to prepare Los Angeles for a large earthquake, advocates measures such as installing water cisterns under major intersections, holding numerous preparation drills and installing new fire hoses.
LaFever said she wants to dedicate herself to earthquake preparedness for several years, change the laws and then move out of California before a major earthquake strikes.
She said her son is her inspiration. Pictures of him are scattered around the house, but she said there is one picture she can't bear to look at--Alstyne with a direct gaze, smiling brightly. LaFever said she hopes she can use the loss of her son to prevent others from being killed or injured in earthquakes.
"In a way, maybe his life can be used to save thousands of other lives--as a warning to us here."