SAN FRANCISCO — Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster in the true sense of the word. When the violent winds stopped howling, and the flood waters retreated, death and destruction were everywhere, the likes of which many had never seen before.
But long before Katrina, one of our nation’s worst natural disasters struck the west coast of California and all but destroyed the booming city of San Francisco.
At 5:12 a.m., on April 18, 1906 the ground started shaking at first light. The violent earthquake lasted less than a minute, but leveled downtown.
Within minutes dozens of fires broke out across the city and the ruptured water mains made it impossible for the small fire crews to beat back the flames, and for three days, those that survived, watched helplessly as their city burned.
The estimated 7.8 magnitude quake destroyed 28,000 of the city’s 53,000 buildings. In just 28 seconds City Hall, which had taken 27 years to build, was reduced to an unrecognizable pile of rubble.
Video: Calculating the impact The quake and fires left a quarter of a million people homeless. It’s estimated that as many as 6,000 people died as a result of the quake and ensuing firestorm that swept through the city.
Thanks to a combination of determination, enterprise, and entrepreneurial spirit, San Francisco rebuilt, but what would the economic cost be if a similar disaster occurred in the city of the Golden Gate today?
What would the cost be in 2006 dollars?
What about the next horrible earthquake? Expert says it’s not a matter of if the next big one hits, it’s a matter of when. And the stakes are higher today, in part because of the explosive population growth. Since 1906 the Bay Area has grown by a factor of 10.
“There were 10 times fewer buildings because there were 10 times fewer people,” said earthquake engineer, Charles Kircher. “The buildings were also worth less than 50 percent of what they currently are, so in fact, buildings are now valued at 500 times what they were in 1906.”
Kircher has spent more than 30 years studying the economic impact of a major earthquake and said today’s price tag for a quake the size of the 1906 quake will be staggering.
“The total economic loss for the region, just due to damaged buildings and the contents of the buildings is estimated to be a little over $120 billion.”
And consider Silicon Valley. One hundred years ago, the 45-mile stretch between San Francisco and San Jose consisted mostly of farms and summer homes. Now it’s the heartbeat of the high tech industry, with profits for companies in the valley topping over $300 million last year alone.
Greg Papadopoulos, Chief Technology Officer and Executive Vice President of Sun Microsystems said his company is ready.
“Our manufacturing is distributed around the world, so it’s not concentrated,” explained Papadopoulos. “If one place gets damaged we can move those operations very quickly somewhere else.”
The biggest concern for Papadopoulos is not the network crashing or email failing, it's people. Of the company’s 38,000 employees, 8,000 work in California.
“Our biggest concern in our planning is how do we actually help and support not only our employees but, the community,” said Papadopoulos, “because Sun and our systems play such a vital role in things like telecommunications and delivery of emergency services.”
Key is replication
Other high-tech companies, based in Silicon Valley, like Google, Yahoo and Intel also say they have a plan in place. And according to Papadopoulos it’s all about replication.
“The way you keep an email system up and running after a bad event is to plan for it and have multiple places where email can work. I don’t think people should worry about large-scale businesses stopping. We are a lot better prepared than we were in 1906,” he said.
Small- and medium-sized business, on the other hand, according to Papadopoulos, might be the weakest link.
“People can be way too dependent on computing where they haven’t done the replication, or haven’t planned for the disaster,” he said. “They get into this problem where they’ve put everything on their PC, that PC goes away, it’s flooded or burned down, and they’ve lost everything.”
Charles Kircher agrees that the lessons learned from 1906, and more recent disasters like Hurricane Katrina, have left people and big business better prepared, but are we prepared enough?
“I think the San Francisco Bay Area has been taking steps to be prepared for this earthquake,” Kircher said. “Have we done enough? Probably not, we need to do more.”
When it comes to earthquake readiness predictions and possible impact speculations there are a lot more questions that answers. But the experts agree on one thing: history will repeat itself, it’s only a matter of time.
Jennifer London is an NBC News correspondent based in Burbank, Calif. She was recently on assignment in San Francisco.