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How the Next Quake Could Affect San Francisco


In less than a year, three natural disasters--a tsunami, a hurricane and an earthquake--have destroyed cities and villages and killed hundreds of thousands of people. As the world focuses on recovery efforts in Pakistan and as this country focuses on rebuilding New Orleans, it's worth remembering another major American city that was nearly destroyed by a natural disaster. The great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was bigger than any quake California has seen since. Today, the question is: Could the Bay area survive the next big one, which many experts say is likely to hit within the next 30 years? Here's NPR's John McChesney.

JOHN McCHESNEY reporting:

Hurricanes leave massive tracks on radar screens as they roar toward the shore, but earthquake faults, if they leave any sign at all, make tiny tracks. Take the Hayward fault. It's the most likely to rupture in the Bay area, and it runs for 74 miles under a dozen cities where two and a half million people live on the east side of the Bay. Geologist Jim Lienkaemper, who works for the US Geological Survey, knows where every sign of the Hayward fault appears. He took us on a tour.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

McCHESNEY: In downtown Hayward, we pull into a parking lot. Lienkaemper points to a line of herringbone cracks in the asphalt...

Mr. JIM LIENKAEMPER (US Geological Survey): There it is.

McCHESNEY: ...which lead to a pink concrete building housing a sign company.

Mr. LIENKAEMPER: The fault is actually underneath the building.

McCHESNEY: Cement block building with a crack running vertically right down it.

Mr. LIENKAEMPER: This building is severely deformed. If you go stand up above, you can see it's moved right laterally. The whole downtown area is really rich with offset buildings and cracks like this.

McCHESNEY: We drive north toward Berkeley, and Lienkaemper keeps up a steady patter as he points out that the fault runs under shopping malls, the children's section of the Oakland Zoo, under the city of Berkeley and the University of California campus. We stop at the football stadium there and walk underneath.

Mr. LIENKAEMPER: This beam here is being pulled off in the direction you'd expect from right lateral movement of the fault, and we're actually getting quite close to where the actual fault trace is.

McCHESNEY: Which is right over there, right.

Mr. LIENKAEMPER: Over there, yeah, you can see it. Literally the Earth--the soil that supports the stadium is rising up there.

McCHESNEY: The fault runs right across the football field and through the goal posts. The university has scheduled the stadium for a retrofit. It was built in 1923. And the university is seismically reinforcing much of the rest of the campus, a 20-year project that will cost more than a billion dollars.

(Soundbite of bells)

McCHESNEY: We're standing in the historic epicenter of the UC, Berkeley campus with spokeswoman Christine Shaff. The most notable structure here is the 30-story campanile, a Bay area icon.

Ms. CHRISTINE SHAFF (University of California Spokeswoman): The Hayward fault is a few hundred yards to the east of where we're standing. It's a steel frame structure built to the safety standards of its time. It's also not occupied on a constant basis.

McCHESNEY: But if it came down...

Ms. SHAFF: That would be very sad.

McCHESNEY: Sad, indeed, to anyone unlucky enough to be walking by on this crowded campus. The last quake on the Hayward was in 1868, so the fault is now cocked to deliver a temblor in the neighborhood of magnitude 7. The results, everyone agrees, will be horrific.

Mr. STU NISHENKO (Pacific Gas and Electric Company): It's not pretty.

McCHESNEY: Stu Nishenko is an earthquake mitigation expert who used to work for FEMA. Now he works for the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

Mr. NISHENKO: It's comparable to, in terms of losses, what we're seeing now for Katrina, that Hayward earthquake would be the equivalent of a Kobe earthquake here in the United States in terms of losses exceeding a hundred billion dollars.

McCHESNEY: The 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan killed over 5,000 people. A Hayward quake might not be as deadly but no one knows for sure.

Mr. NISHENKO: The estimate is there'd probably be tens of thousands of people that would need some kind of medical aid and maybe on the order of thousands that would be casualties.

McCHESNEY: Houses built before current building codes would be wrenched from their foundations, breaking gas lines, potentially engulfing whole neighborhoods in fire. Hundreds of unreinforced masonry buildings would collapse. The soil in some areas would actually liquify, causing buildings to collapse or sink. Jeanne Perkins is with the Association of Bay Area Governments.

Ms. JEANNE PERKINS (Association of Bay Area Governments): We're predicting that roughly a hundred and fifty thousand housing units would be uninhabitable following this earthquake. In addition, that results in the displacement of about 360,000 people.

McCHESNEY: When the 1989 earthquake hit the Bay area, the Bay Bridge and a major elevated freeway collapsed, greatly complicating the work of emergency responders. The Bay area still has to depend on that old bridge for at least the next seven years, and a major quake on the Hayward fault would wreak even more havoc with other bridges and roads.

Ms. PERKINS: Our current estimate is that there are approximately 1,700 roads that would be closed in a Hayward event.

McCHESNEY: Even worse, the rapid transit tunnels under the Bay could shake loose and be destroyed, and some of the big aqueducts that supply water from the Sierras could be wrenched loose. The 1989 quake stimulated a burst of retrofitting, but many huge projects are still in the planning stage, and after FEMA's fumbling during Katrina, people are wondering what might happen here. California Senator Barbara Boxer has written to President Bush, asking to see a copy of FEMA's preparedness plan.

Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): I haven't gotten a response, but they have verbally assured us that they are sending us a response, which is very unusual. So I think the fact that they have gone out of their way to say, `We will be back to you,' says to me that they are concerned as well.

McCHESNEY: Since earthquakes can't be predicted, the only effective antidote is to shore up buildings and infrastructure for the inevitable, but the extraordinary expense isn't politically attractive. The Bush administration cut FEMA's pre-disaster mitigation budget in half in 2005, and Congress then appropriated less than that, only $100 million. To put those numbers in context, it will cost $840 million just to retrofit San Francisco's General Hospital. Michael Armstrong spent seven years with FEMA as a mitigation director.

Mr. MICHAEL ARMSTRONG (Former FEMA Mitigation Director): When there's not an immediate return on a benefit, the budgeteers in the United States government have a hard time with allocating federal dollars. We can demonstrate that for every one dollar invested before a disaster, you save two dollars.

McCHESNEY: On the good news side, California emergency officials feel that they're much better prepared for the next quake than they were for the last two. Following breakdowns in landline and cellular communications, for example, emergency crews are now equipped with satellite telephones. Even small details like firehouse doors are being improved. Don Parker was the Oakland chief during the '89 quake. At a station close to the collapsed freeway, where dozens were killed and injured, firemen found themselves trapped.

Mr. DON PARKER (Oakland Chief For 1989 Earthquake): They actually had to extricate themselves out before they could respond.

McCHESNEY: So at this fire station in Vallejo, a city on the Hayward fault where Parker is now chief, a special sensor has been installed that detects the preliminary wave of an earthquake...

(Soundbite of buzzer)

Unidentified Voice: Alert! A seismic event is occurring!

(Soundbite of buzzer; door opening)

McCHESNEY: ...and opens the doors before the big shake.

(Soundbite of door opening)

McCHESNEY: A real test of the system could come at any time.

John McChesney, NPR News, San Francisco.

(Soundbite of buzzer)

Unidentified Voice: Alert! A seismic event is occurring!

(Soundbite of buzzer)

Unidentified Voice: Alert! A seismic event is occurring!

(Soundbite of buzzer)

Unidentified Voice: Alert! A seismic event is occurring!

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John McChesney
Since 1979 senior correspondent John McChesney has been with NPR, where he has served as national editor (responsible for domestic news) and senior foreign editor. Over the course of his career with NPR, McChesney covered a variety of beats and traveled extensively throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. His reports can be heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and newscasts.