Financial Times, June 24 2006
Tracey Taylor talks to San Franciscans
about day to day living on two
earthquake fault lines
Scanning the newspaper on Friday to find out how your weekend plans will be affected by the weather is a common ritual wherever you live. If your home is in certain parts of California, you will also learn how many earthquakes occurred around you in the previous seven days. In the San Francisco Bay Area, in the week ending June 9, there were 69, the largest being one with a magnitude of 3.3 located near Talmage in Mendocino county. Any relatively strong one (above 3) would have caused residents to feel a sudden sharp jolt to their houses or an intense shudder in the ground beneath their feet.
Unfortunately, unlike forecasting the weather, predicting earthquakes is an inexact science, so your Friday paper will have no useful information about how many quakes to expect in the coming week. There will be many, but where, how large or how they may affect you is anyone’s guess. Welcome to life on the fault line.
San Francisco and its suburbs are situated on the San Andreas fault and its tributary the Hayward fault, which geological maps helpfully show running within half a mile of my home. My neighbours and I are literally living life on the edge and lately it’s been hard to forget it.
April 18 marked the 100th anniversary of the “Big One”, the 1906 earthquake that, combined with the fire that raged in its wake, all but destroyed San Francisco and left at least 3,000 dead. In the run-up to the centennial, the media ran stories for weeks. There were numerous commemorative exhibitions and events and, on the day itself, a reported 10,000 people, many dressed up in bonnets and breeches, converged in the city centre at 5.12am to remember the moment the earthquake struck.
Considered one of the US’s worst natural disasters, the 1906 quake had a magnitude of 7.9. Its epicentre was two miles offshore but its impact was much more far-ranging as it ripped the earth’s surface for 300 miles along the San Andreas fault at speeds of up to 13,000mph. In that year’s May 5 edition of Collier’s, Jack London wrote: “Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed. San Francisco is gone. Nothing remains of it but memories and a fringe of dwelling-houses on its outskirts. Its industrial section is wiped out. Its business section is wiped out. Its social and residential section is wiped out. The factories and warehouses, the great stores and newspaper buildings, the hotels and the palaces of the nabobs, are all gone.”
Response to the ”big one” was swift, however. Reconstruction was largely completed by 1915, in time for the Panama-Pacific Exposition, which celebrated the city’s “rise from the ashes”.
The next big quake in the Bay Area was in 1989. The 7.1-magnitude Loma Prieta killed 66 people, injured more than 3,700 and caused extensive destruction. Forty-two of the deaths occurred when a double-decker portion of a freeway “pancaked” and crushed several cars on the lower deck. A section of the Bay Bridge, the main artery between the East Bay and San Francisco, also collapsed.
As for the next one, the US Geological Survey says there is a 62 per cent chance of a damaging earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or higher striking the Bay Area within the next 30 years. The Hayward fault is most likely to snap. Severe quakes have happened on this fault every 151 years, give or take 23 years, meaning it is now into the danger zone. As USGS seismologist Tom Brocher has said: “It is locked and loaded and ready to fire at any time.”
So how prepared is the Bay Area and the people who live in it? Officially the region is as ready as it ever has been. Billions of dollars have been spent over the past decade to upgrade water, transportation, communications and emergency response systems. But there are still deficiencies. Since Loma Prieta, all the Bay Area’s freeway overpasses have been seismically hardened and all but two of its eight major bridges have been sufficiently upgraded, including the Golden Gate. Yet the Bay Bridge, the most crucial span of all, has not been protected, nor have parts of the area’s main public transit system, the BART Transbay system.
Guidance on “earthquake preparedness” for the local population is readily available, if not always adhered to. Most homes, unless they were built in the past 20 years or so, need to be seismically retrofitted, a three-step process which has the effect of “tying the house together”: you bolt the house to the foundation, add plywood to brace the walls, then use special hardware to attach those walls to the floor framing above them. Retrofitting costs range from $3,000 to $30,000 according to the vulnerability of the home.
People are urged to have a disaster plan that includes agreeing where to meet family members after an earthquake. And everyone is advised to be ready to survive on their own without power, water and food for three days. This means keeping full emergency supplies in your home: water, food, first-aid kit, tools, blankets and important family documents. Yet a poll in March this year showed that, although seven out of 10 Californians believed a big earthquake would strike the state and affect them, only 22 per cent felt they were well prepared for an such an event.
People’s attitudes to living in earthquake country vary widely. Some, such as Oakland Hills resident Preston Parsons, live in a permanent state of mild anxiety. “I think about the possibility several times a day,” she says. But, like many of the area’s residents, she doesn’t have earthquake insurance because it’s too expensive. She was given a quote of $5,000 a year. Others, such as Berkeley resident Steve Lomprey, say they don’t give earthquakes a second thought; he cheerfully admits to being “in total denial”.
Mark Burget, whose job as the director a large charity brought him from Colorado to San Francisco a year ago, is less sanguine: “You are more aware than the average person of the possibility of dying unexpectedly at any given moment,” he says. Burget thinks about an earthquake striking when he’s sitting in traffic under a big bridge span or when his family is split up in different parts of the area. He also has a theory that the underlying threat explains the reputation San Franciscans have for being so fun-loving. “It’s why San Francisco is such a vibrant city,” he says. “People are more inclined to live life with abandon.”
Ralph Keyes, author of Chancing It: Why We Take Risks , goes as far as to say that some people positively enjoy living with risk: “There is definitely a thrill to living in earthquake country – as well as hurricane country, flood country, brushfire country and tornado country,” he says
As for me, I’m following in the footsteps of a friend, Mike Wilson, who, after more than 20 years of feeling anxious about how much better prepared he and his family should be for an earthquake, finally took a four-hour window of opportunity from work last month to go to a discount store and buy every disaster supply he could get his hands on. “It’s a huge weight of my mind. Like buying life insurance. I feel better every day,” he says. This month my sons’ school held a silent auction and I had my eye on just one prize: the fully stocked emergency supplies kit. I was prepared to bid high, as high as it took, to buy this potential peace of mind. And, I’m pleased to say, I won it.