This report aired Dateline Sunday, May 21
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF. — It’s just another quiet, routine day in Anchorage, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, San Francisco... or Memphis. You could be just about anywhere in the country.
You’re at the office, at home, preparing dinner, sound asleep in bed, or just watching your kid’s basketball game. You’re just going about your daily routine and have no idea that actually, you are in grave danger. There’s no warning. There’s nothing you can do and suddenly—the very ground beneath you begins to move wildly. It’s an earthquake.
In an instant, there’s terror.
The earth has unleashed one of its most primal, destructive forces. And if you think it can’t happen to you—think again.
We’ve all seen the terrifying images from earthquakes in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Japan, Italy, and scores of places around the world, including the quake off Indonesia that triggered the devastating tsunami of 2004.
Mary Lou Zoback, U.S. Geological Survey: The risk is real. It’s out there. These are certainties. There’s nothing we can do to stop earthquakes.
Zoback of the U.S. Geological Survey has studied earthquakes for more than 30 years.
Zoback: Our intent is really not to scare people. But to make people aware.
Everyone knows that the west coast and Alaska are at risk, but you might be surprised as we take you to at-risk sections of the country you might never think of—like the south, the Midwest, even the Northeast.
We are still so vulnerable.
With all our modern technology, we can’t predict earthquakes or make ourselves completely safe.
But there are some things we can do: This is a portable earthquake demonstration machine that teaches people here in California what to do in a earthquake. On Dateline, we’ll give some simple tips to help you survive an earthquake. Because someday, you might need them.
Few large American cities are more at risk than San Francisco. It’s one of the most beautiful and romantic places in the world.
But the clang of the cable cars could just as well be alarm bells.
The infamous San Andreas fault, seen here further south, lies just a few miles from downtown San Francisco.
Simon Winchester, author, “Crack in the Edge of the World”: If there was nothing in California at all and you were looking for a place to build a city, the place where you would NOT build it is where San Francisco is today, right on top of the San Andreas fault. Which has to be one of the most active and dangerous plate boundaries in the world. You just wouldn’t do it. It’s far too dangerous.
The federal government says a big earthquake in Aan Francisco could have consequences far greater than anything we saw in New Orleans during Katrina.
In the Sunset District of the city’s west side, there are thousands of houses built in the 1940’s where the house rests on top of the garage. Experts say that makes them especially vulnerable to quakes.
Recently, Dateline showed up at the home of Sunset area resident Richard Fritsch, who lives in that very type of house.
We showed up out of the blue, with no advance word. Just the way an earthquake would.
And a great quake — magnitude 8.0 or higher—is never far from his mind.
Richard Fritsch, homeowner: I think about the big one coming. Because you always hear that, ‘the big one’s coming, the big one’s coming.’
Like many San Franciscans, Richard, his wife Kelly, and step-daughter Alexis are a bit unnerved at the chance of a devastating earthquake in their city.
Alexis Fritsch, daughter: Oh, I am scared, of course. I always think like, “Oh My God, what if one comes?” That is going to be horrible.
We’ll see how bad it could be. We offered the Fritsches a unique opportunity to literally rock their world.
Our plan: to show the Fritsches what might happen to a house similar to theirs in the event of a catastrophic quake. Are their furnishings secured? Are there precautions they can take? Do they know what to do when the Big One hits?
Working with the University of California - Berkeley’s earthquake engineering research center, Dateline sponsored the building of a house structurally just like Fritsches’, only smaller.
The furnishings in these two rooms approximate what the Fritsches have in their home.
Don Clyde, UC Berkeley: This is a very real test. The objective here is to recreate real conditions.
U.c. Berkeley lab manager Don Clyde has run the apparatus called the “Shaking Table” for more than 20 years.
The ground motion that’s going to be used for this test will simulate the actual solid conditions that exist in the Sunset and Richmond districts.
So the Fritsches will get to see how their house holds up if the “big one” hits.
Disaster comes knocking on the door of the Fritsch family as they see what happens to their home in a demonstration of a catastrophic quake.
But a few blocks away, this man needs no demonstration from us.
His name is Herbert Hamrol.
He still works three days a week at Andronico’s market in San Francisco. He’s 103 years old.
San Francisco, Calif.
Mr. Hamrol was just 3 back in 1906. It’s when the earth moved, and history changed course.
In the early morning hours of April 18th, 1906, San Francisco was the biggest, richest, and possibly the most wide-open city in the western United States.
Simon Winchester, author, “A Crack in the Edge of the World”: Suddenly, at 12 minutes past 5, everything changed. It was if the streets themselves had turned into great waves, great tsunamis of cement and they were rising up and down. And the buildings themselves were rocking to and fro and to and fro and pieces started falling off them.
All hell broke loose. It’s estimated the quake was a magnitude 8.0.
Within minutes, buildings collapsed all over town. More than 3,000 people died. And even more damage was yet to come.
For Mr. Hamrol, one image remains burned in his mind.
Herbert Hamrol, survivor: All I remember about the earthquake is my mother carrying me down the stairs.
The Hamrol family escaped. But soon, at least 50 separate fires were raging all over town, set off by broken gas lines and upended stoves.
The fires roared for days. 20,000 buildings were destroyed. Nearly five hundred city blocks were leveled.
Hamrol: That was the greatest part of everything pertaining to the earthquake was the damage done by the fire more so than by the shaking.
250 people, more than half the city’s population at that time, were homeless—left to live in the city’s parks.
Herbert Hamrol and his family were among them. But you don’t have to be over a hundred to remember a bad quake in San Francisco.
In 1989, a magnitude 7.1 quake hit near San Francisco during the World Series.
The quake killed more than 60 people, flattened the main superhighway in the East bay—the 880 freeway—leading to desperate rescue efforts.
The quake partially collapsed the main artery between San Francisco and Oakland: the bay bridge.
Fires raged in the city’s high-priced marina district, an eerie reminder of 1906. Modern day construction is considered much safer. Still, some experts say the city needs to do a lot more to prepare.
Mary Lou Zoback, USGS: I’m concerned because a lot of people haven’t taken any steps to prepare.
Mary Lou Zoback’s concern is very real. She’s the senior research scientist with the bay area office of the U.S. Geological Survey, which monitors the nation’s seismic hazards. She says when, not if there’s a repeat of the big quake of 1906, it will be catastrophic.
Part of the reason is there are 10 times as many people living in the region now.
Zoback: And when it repeats, there’ll be a 300-mile-long, 50-mile-wide swath of devastation. And it won’t just be San Francisco. It won’t just be the Bay Area. It will be most of Northern California. Because of the scale, the number of people we expect to be homeless will be a true catastrophe.
Software programs show that the Golden Gate bridge, and San Francisco international airport would shake severely in a giant quake, but are expected to survive.
But Mary Lou Zoback thinks some structures will collapse.
Zoback: We know the Bay Bridge would fail if it was at least as large as in 1989.
And it gets even scarier—The BART, the rapid transit tube running underneath San Francisco Bay will fail. And by failing, it means it’ll crack. Water will rush in. Several of the stations on both sides are below sea level. The roads will liquefy. We know that much of the freeways are built on Bay fill. That ground’s going to liquefy and literally just rip the freeways apart.
Voters in the Bay Area recently approved a bond issue to strengthen the region’s water and mass transit systems. But the work may not be moving fast enough—a recent report criticized San Francisco’s disaster preparedness plan.
Still San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom says the city is taking important steps to get prepared.
(In newsroom) Mayor Gavin Newsom: I don’t think there should be hysteria of being afraid.
Newsom says that as we all saw in Katrina, it’s not just the disaster, but the aftermath that can be devastating.
Newsom: We put together a website called 72-hours-dot-org, making the case that most likely in a catastrophic event, you’re most likely going to be on your own for at least 72 hours. And what we’re offering on this site, is that we want people to be prepared not just with cans of tuna and bottles of water. But to have disaster plans for their family.
There are seven major faults that cut right through the bay area. You’ve heard of the San Andreas fault, which set off the massive 1906 quake and runs for more than 800 miles through California.
But there’s a lesser-known fault that scientists are more worried about right now.
It’s the Hayward fault --- which is believed to be the more likely epicenter of the next big quake. It cuts right through many of the densely populated cities on the east side of the bay.
The old Hayward city hall has been abandoned because it sits right on the fault. But businesses like the Dream Girls hair salon are staying put. For the most part. Lydia Simpson is the owner:
Lydia Simpson, salon owner: You can tell the building is shifting, cause it’s going this way. Yeah, and we got a little crack in the back, that since I’ve been here, the floor is cracking.
For now, at least, it seems many people here are trying to have a sense of humor about the risk.
Simpson: Yeah, cause I’m gonna run anyway. (laughing) The time I feel something shaking, I’m gonna run, I’m gonna hit the door.
She’s joking, because as you’ll see, taking off and running might not get you anywhere.
Imagine just attending this routine government hearing in Seattle, when suddenly...the earth moves.
In 2001, the Pacific Northwest had a very close call.
As a news conference that was just about to start, reporters scrambled to interrupt programming.
In Seattle that day, the only saving grace was that the epicenter was more than 40 miles beneath the earth’s surface, lessening the impact:
It was a wake-up call. 1,500 hundred miles away in Anchorage, Alaska experienced the strongest earthquake ever in this country.
In fact, it was the second strongest earthquake ever recorded on the planet.
It happened on Good Friday, March 27th, 1964.
In Anchorage’s Turnagain heights neighborhood, KTUU-TV General Manager Al Bramstedt was 13 years old. He was building a snow fort with a friend when it happened.
Dramatic images were recorded as the quake struck a wide area of Alaska, an incredible magnitude nine point two.
Al Bramstedt: An older woman ran out she ran down the street and she’s screaming and yelling and she says the Russians have attacked its an atomic bomb we’re all gonna die!
In the chaos of the shattered neighborhood, Al Bramstedt could not have known about his 12-year-old friend named Perry Mead, who lived just a few blocks away. Perry had tried to rescue his baby brother.
Bramstedt: He ran back into the house and grabbed the infant and as he was running out the front door the earth opened up right at the edge of the porch, and as he ran out down the sidewalk, the whole earth opened up and he went right down into the crevice. And they never saw Perry or the infant ever again.
Anchorage was in shocked disbelief.
Mary Lou Zoback, U.S. Geological Survey: There was huge devastation. The landslide just dropped large sections of the city down under water. It was terrible.
Out of the blue, just moments after the Quake, in the small coastal community of Seward, Alaska, a series of tsunamis created a scene straight from hell.
Peter Haeussler, U.S.G.S.: There was a tank farm and some of the tanks broke, fuel went in the water, that fuel ignited, and subsequent tsunamis and waves brought that burning fuel back towards shore.
But as terrible as the Alaska quake was, at least it happened in an area with a relatively small population. Increasingly, seismologists are increasingly concerned about the risk to a metropolitan area that has 200 times more people.
Los Angles, Calif.
That city is Los Angeles. Just 30 miles from the southern end of the San Andreas fault, it is crisscrossed by other dangerous faults which helped shape the mountains that surround the city.
Seismologists now see a pattern similar to what was seen in Northern California in the decades before the great quake of 1906. Southern California has seen numerous moderate quakes in recent decades, some of which have been caught on live television.
KNBC anchor Kent Shocknek was on the air when a magnitude 6.1 quake hit in 1987.
Zoback: If we look at Los Angeles over the last several decades, there’ve been an awful lot of moderate to sometimes even large earthquakes. And this may be the beginning of—sort of a preparation for a much larger earthquake. And the largest earthquakes, of course, will be on the southern San Andreas Fault.
And that’s not the only fault that there’s concern about that’s because in 1999 researchers discovered a highly dangerous formation, called the Puente Hills fault, that cuts right under downtown Los Angeles.
If that one breaks loose, estimates are between 3,000 and 18,000 could die and economic losses could reach $250 billion.
That result would be far worse than the magnitude 6.7 Northridge quake that struck directly underneath the area in 1994.That was the most costly earthquake in American history, with more than $20 billion in damage. More than 60 people died and nine-thousand were injured.
Incredible scenes played out in some of the area’s most densely-populated neighborhoods. Civilians and emergency workers worked side by side attempting to rescue trapped neighbors...
One couple died as their home crashed down this hillside...
But the toll could have been much higher if the city’s earthquake building codes were not some of the best in the country.
Zoback: They actually had mandated that all un-reinforced masonry, brick buildings, un-reinforced brick buildings, be either removed or strengthened. And they gave the building owners ten years to do that. And, fortunately, that was done. And those buildings were corrected or removed just prior to the Northridge Earthquake in 1994.
In San Francisco, the Fritsch family knows they are living on shaky ground.
Now, they would like to know what might happen to their home if the Big One hits.
At least the Fritsches know about the risks in San Francisco. In other parts of the country, they don’t.
Nearly 2,000 miles away, in the south-central states, folks are used to disasters like tornadoes and floods. But earthquakes?
New Madrid, Mo.
In New Madrid, Mo. there’s a mysterious geological fault that many Americans know nothing about.
And if you think what you don’t know can’t hurt you...think again.
Nearly 200 years ago in 1811 and 1812, the ground was violently ripped apart by a series of exceptionally strong earthquakes. That could happen again tomorrow.
Eugene Schweig, USGS: A repeat of what happened in 1811 or 1812, that is a magnitude 7 ½, 7.7 earthquake occurring in the Mississippi Valley, would be a disaster.
Eugene Schweig is a research geologist with the U.S. Geological survey.
Schweig: There have been studies recently that show that just building losses alone would exceed $70 billion just for one earthquake. And we expect more than one earthquake.
The New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 sent shock waves all the way to Washington D.C. and the White House. Here, on what was then the frontier, whole villages were destroyed and settlers were terrified.
Lynn Bock, Historian, New Madrid Historical Museum: When the ground beneath your feet is rolling like a wave, your house is falling down. Things are being thrown into the air, out of the earth—they had never experienced anything like that.
The New Madrid quakes are still mysterious because researchers don’t know where the fault line is that set them off. But seismologists say cities and towns up and down the Mississippi Valley are at risk for a catastrophe.
According to seismologists, St. Louis is one of the cities at risk. But they say there’s even more risk in other places - especially Memphis, Tennessee.
Schweig: We would expect shaking to be quite severe in Memphis. It has a lot of old buildings, old infrastructure…
Memphis and many of the cities and towns along the Mississippi have thousands of un-reinforced brick masonry buildings that could become deathtraps.
Claude Talford runs the Memphis-Shelby county emergency management agency.
Claude Talford, Memphis-Shelby emergency management agency: We have 3 major bridges. If the damage was substantial enough that those bridges collapsed—a lot of the buildings in the downtown area would collapse. So you have a lot of people trapped, and injured and probably dead.
Many of the city’s bridges are now being retrofitted.
The risk of a giant quake here is considered smaller than on the West coast, but still a one-in-ten chance of a massive quake in the next 50 years.
Over on the Eastern seaboard, there’s another city that you might not think of at risk.
But on the warm sultry night of August 31st, 1886, Charleston, South Carolina was devastated by an earthquake that might have been as strong as a magnitude seven.
An estimated 90 percent of all the brick buildings in the city were destroyed and the shock waves were felt as far away as Milwaukee and Boston.
City residents were panic-stricken, and at least 60 people died.
Richard Cote, historian: Some people described the sounds as 1,000 freight trains from hell all arriving at the same station.
Historian Richard Cote wrote a book about the disaster:
Cote: The electricity, the telegraph lines and the gas lights were all snuffed out within seconds leaving Charleston completely dark, terrorized and a huge cloud of dust and people yelling, running and screaming in pain and agony everyplace.
Little is known about the fault that caused the great Charleston quake, and some residents think this was just a freak occurrence that cannot happen again.
Schweig: It could be a very dangerous assumption. And the likelihood of an earthquake in Charleston is probably somewhere between two and ten percent in the next 50 years, quite significant.
And then, there’s the biggest American city of all.
Chuck Scarborough, news anchor: We are sitting on a seismic time bomb.
One of the most trusted and recognized people in all New York, longtime WNBC-TV anchor Chuck Scarborough is known for his calm, cool demeanor. But when it comes to a major earthquake in the New York area, he has been sounding the alarm for nearly 20 years:
Scarborough: It’s going to happen some day. The question is are we going to be ready? And we aren’t now. The structures here simply are not build strongly enough to withstand a quake and it would be a major disaster.
Scarborough has been a leading voice in raising public awareness about the risk in New York, and even wrote a novel about a disastrous quake in the Big Apple.
Scarborough: The fact is that we are in an area that does have seismic activity, that has a billion year history of seismic activity, that has significant earthquakes from time to time. They don’t happen nearly as often as they do in the West Coast. But there are reputable seismologists who’ll tell you that we’re overdue right now.
Back in 1884, New York was jarred by a moderate quake. But in those days, the city was much smaller and not a maze of skyscrapers, tunnels and water mains... so there was not severe damage.
In the future, New York might not be so lucky.
Mary Lou Zoback, U.S.G.S.: There are a number of faults that we recognize running beneath New York. There are moderate to small earthquakes. And that always indicates there is potential for larger earthquakes.
That’s true in upstate New York and New England as well. Bear in mind that the chances of a big quake here are smaller than in the West. But if it happens...
Scarborough: The water mains beneath Manhattan would rupture. They’re ancient and brittle anyway. Flooding the subway tunnels. The streets are filled with debris. Fires are burning. Scary enough for you?
The Fritsch Family of San Francisco is about to see how a mockup of their home will stand up to a giant quake—the long-feared “Big One.”
At U.C. Berkeley’s field station, we put the Fritsches’ household to a big test.
Using the expertise of the Earthquake Engineering Research Center, “Dateline” sponsored the construction of a two-story mock-up of the Fritsches’ home.
It was built on an earthquake simulator called a “shaking table.” After construction, an NBC scenic design crew approximated the look of the Fritsches’ home.
Professor Khalid Mosalam, of the civil engineering department at U.C. Berkeley, designed the demonstration for us.
Hoda Kotb, correspondent: how scientifically accurate would you say this test is?
Prof. Khalid Mosalam, civil engineering at U.C. Berkeley: This is very accurate. We went through a lengthy process to make this representative to many houses in San Francisco, a lengthy process to get representative ground motion, so it’s as scientific as it can be.
The quake used in the demonstration was designed to last 52 seconds with two distinct jolts. It would be “The Big one,” approximately a magnitude 8.0, with the epicenter near San Francisco. That’s about as big a quake as the Bay Area could expect.
For the Fritsches, and for us, there was a little bit of apprehension before the demonstration began. The simulated earthquake would be strong. There was a chance the mock-up of the house would collapse...
Just like in many real earthquakes, there is a brief pause and then the shaking begins again.
To say the least, the place was wreck. And it could have been a deathtrap.
Kotb: What do you think looking at this?
Kelly Fritsch, homeowner: Somebody could die in that room. Easy.
Richard Fritsch, homeowner: If you weren’t under the desk you’d be in bad shape.
A surprise was the dining room table. Incredibly...the little table cloth and plant stayed almost perfectly in place. Sometimes, earthquake effects are hard to predict.
Kotb: Alexis, this is your house. What do you think looking at that?
Alexis, daughter: It’s just scary because I could be at home after school by myself and have this happen.
Once the engineers determined it was safe to go up, we brought the Fritsches into the wrecked mock-up of their home.
Richard Fritsch: This is just a total disaster. This is totally not anything I thought would happen.
Kelly Fritsch: It’s just devastating, really, really devastating.
But now they’ll have the chance to see what happens when their furniture is secured. For this test, earthquake safety contractor Mike Essrig fastened down most of the big household items.
Mike Essrig, earthquake safety contractor: I would absolutely say they need to fasten their china hutches, their armoires, their television sets. Make sure that’s done. The water heater of course, that can start a fire if it bursts.
Virtually everything was secured in the home, except the mock-up of the big TV set, which we left unfastened to see what might happen.
And then, this simulated quake hit.
As we saw, the Fritsches were still amazed at the quake’s strength.
A lot of loose knick-knacks and other unsecured items flew around the rooms. Yet the main furniture stayed put.
Except for that weighted mock-up of the big TV set.
It wasn’t secured and it took off. But overall, it appears if their furniture was secured, the Fritsches would not have been injured if the “Big One” hit.
But remember, that’s if their furniture was secured, bolted down, or fastened.
Kotb: What did we learn from what we saw in this house today?
Mosalam: It made a big difference whether the furniture is strapped to the walls or not.
This is the Fritsches’ study with fastening, on the left, and without fastening on the right.
Contractor Mike Essrig hopes people who live in places at risk of quakes get the message.
Essrig: They’ll be proactive as opposed to reactive. In the Northridge earthquake, a lot of people came out after and they fastened their homes and they got all prepared, they bought the earthquake kits. But that was too late. They needed to do it beforehand.
Kotb: And the cost of proofing a house like this is what?
Essrig: $300 -400 dollars.
Kotb: That’s it?
Essrig: To have somebody to come out and do it. You can do it yourself for fifty to a hundred.
And as for the Fritsch family, they got a chance to see what they can change—before the earthquake or tragedy strikes:
Kotb: Does this make you feel better, worse?
Alexis Fritsch: It makes me feel nervous because of all this heavy furniture just falling to the ground. It’s scary to think of what can happen.
Scary? No doubt about it.
But you can avoid an earthquake from rocking your world — if “The Big One” comes knocking on your front door.
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