Getting Ready for The Big One
The City by the Bay minds history's lessons, sort of
SAN FRANCISCO--City Hall, destroyed in 1906, nearly toppled in 1989, is today a towering Beaux-Arts masterpiece. It's also the largest building in the world resting on what is essentially a rubber-and-stainless-steel spring that absorbs the energy of seismic waves before they reach the building's granite surface. But 5 miles away in the Sunset neighborhood, the situation couldn't be more different; sherbet-colored buildings with parking garages on the ground floor stand shoulder to shoulder, marching to the Pacific Ocean. This type of "soft story" housing is as uniquely San Francisco as cable cars, but the buildings, in part because of the way energy waves dance through them, are considered among the most likely candidates for total collapse in an earthquake.
And that's the yin and the yang of this city of 750,000, where everyone knows the big one could return at any moment. The U.S. Geological Survey says there's a 62 percent probability that one of the many faults that snake through the Bay Area will deliver at least one quake of 6.7 magnitude or stronger (on the moment scale) by 2032. In many fundamental ways, San Francisco is among the elite in preparedness, and yet it remains riddled with vulnerabilities. Experts have estimated that a major San Francisco temblor could cost the nation as much as $200 billion. What it would cost the City by the Bay is impossible to tell.
"Foreign fruit." On the face of it, California, a state sometimes dubbed "America's Disaster Theme Park," is certainly no stranger to living on the edge. And that's been instructive, more or less. The city of San Francisco that emerged from the ashes of 1906 boasted a few superwide streets to serve as natural firebreaks and a high-pressure auxiliary water system that allows firefighters to tap into a 10.5million-gallon basin reserved just for battling conflagrations. Much of the emergency response structure used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was "modeled after plans developed out in California," says George Foresman, the top DHS preparedness official. After wildfires ripped through the state in 1970, firefighters here crafted a basic organizational structure so they could quickly assemble teams of first responders for future blazes. That system, as well as the search-and-rescue-team concept developed here, has since gone national.
So San Franciscans were particularly rattled in 1989 when the Loma Prieta earthquake, a moderate 6.9-magnitude temblor, destroyed an Oakland highway overpass, collapsed a section of the city's double-decker Bay Bridge, and killed 67. "The great lesson of 1989," says Philip Fradkin, author of Magnitude 8, a book on earthquake history, "is that we were only prepared on paper. "Broken mains crippled the city's vaunted water system, and a raging fire in the tony Marina neighborhood was largely squelched by a fireboat that chugged into the harbor 30 minutes before low tide. Communications were so shattered that some far-flung Bay Area communities weren't heard from until the next morning.
In retrospect, that episode may have been something of a blessing, albeit an expensive one. Unlike many of the other 26 cities the U.S. Geological Survey says are most at risk for future temblors--a list that includes Boston, Memphis, and Charleston, S.C.--many residents of San Francisco now think about earthquakes frequently. "California's building codes," says James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Bill Clinton, "are the best of basically anyone's." In the past four years, the region has approved a $1 bridge-toll hike and more than $2 billion in bonds for a variety of seismic upgrades, including a project to strengthen the network of pipes that provides most of the city with water. On a recent night at the Golden Gate Yacht Club in the Marina, 65-year-old Lindsay MacDermid trained to become a neighborhood response team volunteer. "This city's going to need incredible help when the big one comes," MacDermid says. The active volunteer force already numbers 9,000. "San Francisco just gets it, and they got it long before Hurricane Katrina," says Jack Harrald, the director of George Washington University's Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management. A city-sponsored website, for instance, says citizens should be prepared to wait three days after an earthquake for help. That's why the inevitable San Francisco-New Orleans comparison so rankles the city's public officials. "It's like comparing apples," says Annemarie Conroy, San Francisco's emergency services chief, "to some ... foreign fruit."