OAKLAND — First there was the earthquake. Then came the fire. Now, some people in this seemingly star-crossed city are wondering if the fates have a flood--or worse--in store for them.
"Can we take more?" John Christensen, manager of economic development for the Oakland Chamber of Commerce said with a sigh. The fire has ravaged a city that he acknowledged is known for the negative: drugs, violence, poverty, a troubled school system, the departure of its beloved Raiders football team--not to mention the 1989 quake that leveled a double-deck section of freeway and killed 42 people.
The reference to a flood is not just a biblical metaphor.
"That (fear of flooding) has already been raised," said Christensen, mentioning the hillsides now denuded by fire and prone to slides. "If we have a wet winter, what happens? This is all on steep hillsides."
But Oaklanders are a tough, resilient lot. Generally, they are looking with resignation beyond the ashes of this latest calamity to the challenges of rebuilding.
"It's a community that knows, unfortunately, how to deal with tragedy," said Edward J. Blakely, professor of urban planning at UC Berkeley and head of the University-Oakland Metropolitan Forum, a group involved in downtown revitalization and other projects.
The turn-of-the-century City Hall is still closed as a result of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, and a city block of commercial buildings remains shut for the same reason. The city also nearly lost its venerable hometown paper, the Oakland Tribune, in a recent money squeeze. Nonetheless, Blakely said, community leaders were optimistic about economic progress before the fire.
Progress will be difficult, he said, because many of those same civic leaders have been made homeless by the fire that destroyed more than 400 buildings and killed 14 people in the affluent hills above the poorer flatlands.
"They are the lifeblood of the city" and are vital to the tax base, Blakely said. "It wipes us out. You're talking about the most expensive homes in the city that are just wiped out. . . . What's worse, it's these people who are the biggest spenders in our city, so the sales tax will be hurt."
For Christensen, there is the deep-down knowledge that Oakland will cope with this new disaster and a still-stunned feeling of uncertainty.
"Everyone I've talked to is talking about pulling it back together," he said. "But who knows? It's the yin and the yang. The challenge and the difficulty. I can just see the difficulty right now . . . . If there's a good spirit of cooperation we can get it back together again. But what community can take two disasters in a row?"
In the meantime, Oakland residents are hoping that disasters don't really come in threes as folklore has it.
"I'm for flying a white flag for the next 10 years," said Don Peralta, an Alameda County supervisor. "It begins to have an effect on the psychology of the community. . . . At some point you begin to lose self-confidence."
At that point, said Peralta, the community must reach down for that something extra to pull them through.
"Now more than ever," he said, "we need our best (people) to perform."
But for some Oaklanders, enough is enough.
"If I had the money, I would leave," said Doug Gray, 26, a lifelong Oakland resident whose family lives in the poor, largely black flatlands near the West Oakland area where the doubled-decked Nimitz Freeway structure collapsed during the 1989 earthquake.
Blakely, for all his Angst, thinks the fire may help bridge the gap between flatlanders such as Gray and well-to-do hillside dwellers.
"What I noticed (Sunday) night," said Blakely, "was that people from the flatlands were up helping them (fire victims). The flatlanders were hit hard by the earthquake. Maybe the hills and the flatlands will come together. They have an awful lot in common now."
Morain reported from Oakland, Hurst from Sacramento.