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Bay Area far from ready for the next ‘Big One’

When the next large earthquake hits the San Francisco area, the destruction will overwhelm rescue and recovery efforts, warn experts in seismology and disaster preparedness. MSNBC’s Alex Johnson reports.
San Francisco repaints this golden fire hydrant every year on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake. Legend has it that the hydrant, near Mission Dolores Park, miraculously delivered water when almost all others were useless, saving a large part of the city.
San Francisco repaints this golden fire hydrant every year on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake. Legend has it that the hydrant, near Mission Dolores Park, miraculously delivered water when almost all others were useless, saving a large part of the city.

1906 will happen again. And it will be worse than you can possibly imagine.

Years of work costing billions of dollars to shore up infrastructure and retrofit buildings, bridges and procedures will mitigate the impact of a “major” or “great” earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area, but only a little. When the Big One finally hits, the destruction will be immense, utterly overwhelming rescue and recovery efforts, according to a review of more than a dozen recent government and academic reports and interviews with numerous experts in seismology and disaster preparedness.

Among other things, the review — assessing measures taken over about the last 20 years — found that only about a tenth of the region’s governments have shored up their municipal water systems to survive a major disaster. Disaster-response experts identify the water supply as the crucial link in the recovery chain both to fight inevitable widespread fires and to help keep survivors alive.

And while doctors say critical care in the first 72 hours is what keeps most people with major injuries in hospital beds and out of body bags, most of the region’s hospitals would be unable to provide any reliable patient care.

“California has a very commendable record of dealing with large natural disasters,” said Richard Andrews, a member of President Bush’s Homeland Security Advisory Council, who was the state’s director of emergency services for most of the 1990s.

But large earthquakes in recent years have been small potatoes compared to the 1906 earthquake, said David McLean of Washington State University, a structural engineering expert with the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center.

Forever behind the 8-ball
Events like the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake — which killed dozens of people, destroyed $6 billion of property and delayed the World Series — are not “the benchmark of what a big earthquake would be like,” McLean said.  “It’ll be much, much stronger and much different.”

In a report timed to the 100th anniversary, Charles Kircher & Associates, an engineering firm affiliated with the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, projected Monday that a repeat of the Great Earthquake of 1906 would kill 1,800 to 3,400 people, damage more than 90,000 structures and displace as many as 250,000 households. It would cause $122 billion in damage — and that doesn’t include losses from fires, which were the most destructive part of the 1906 earthquake.

In light of those numbers, many scientists and disaster experts are exasperated at what they see as a lack of urgency from government officials.

Ken Verosub, a geology professor at the University of California at Davis, was a member of the California Task Force on Earthquake Preparedness, which Gov. Jerry Brown created in 1979. The task force worked for only six years, however, before Gov. George Deukmejian disbanded it in 1985.

“The fact that it no longer exists is a telling commentary, I think, on where we are,” Verosub said.

More attention has been paid since the Loma Prieta earthquake, which hit to the south of the city, but inadequate projects to retrofit major structures and critical infrastructure for years before mean little can be done to mitigate destruction if a catastrophic earthquake were to hit in the next few years.

For example, fewer than half of the 109 local governments in the region had retrofitted or replaced even one municipal structure to withstand an earthquake, the nonprofit Earthquake Engineering Research Institute reported in 2002.

Fewer than half of all older single-family homes in the region had undergone retrofitting, the American Society of Home Inspectors found in 1998, and no more than 15 percent were projected to be habitable. In multi-family dwellings, the Association of Bay Area Governments concluded from census data, more than half a million residents in the region could be displaced.

“It’s going to cause major damage, and there’s very little that can be done in the short term to reduce that level of damage,” Andrews said.

First responders left hobbled
“Lessons come at a steep price,” said Joanne Hayes-White, chief of the San Francisco Fire Department. Her department would be among the first responders to any big earthquake in San Francisco and San Francisco County, and it is designated as the lead coordinator of a regional response.

Hayes-White said she was confident that authorities would respond heroically to a repeat of the 1906 earthquake. Since 1950, many of California’s local governments have been joined in a mutual-aid compact, and she said they had all learned a great deal after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. New strategies and tactics have been born, and she is especially proud of advanced disaster-training programs she shepherded.

Still, Hayes-White said at a special hearing before the San Francisco Fire Commission this month, tough economic times have slowed the momentum: “For the last few years, our fire department has not been as up to speed [in acquiring and maintaining modern equipment] as I would have liked.”

For instance, the department has just two fire boats to navigate the bay waters that surround the city on three sides. They would be indispensable in reaching fires made inaccessible by damaged roads, but the department is constantly fighting off proposals to decommission one or even both to save money.

And before voters ordered otherwise in a ballot proposition late last year, the city had started temporarily closing some fire stations to cut costs. Even then, Hayes-White noted, voters merely restored funding levels to what they had been in 2004.

It’s a critical point. If the Big One is anything at all like 1906, it won’t be the earthquake that wreaks the most havoc. It will be the fires.

What’s underground
“Scarcely had the earth ceased to shake when fires broke out simultaneously in many places,” wrote the anonymous authors of a vivid instant history published days after the 1906 earthquake, “The Complete Story of the San Francisco Horror, by the Survivors and Rescuers.”

The fires erupted first in the fuel- and tinder-laden district south of Market Street, home to oil works, furniture factories and lumber yards. Before long, San Francisco’s famous winds had driven the flames across the city, where they were fed by countless broken gas lines. Meanwhile, the shaking had breached most of the water lines, so firefighters were armed with dry hoses.

The gas lines are underground today, and they’re built to flex with the earth during a quake, said McLean of the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center. Except for those that lie directly along the major faults, many should remain intact.

Water is another matter. While you need huge amounts of water to fight big fires, more critical is what you need for people to drink and for doctors to treat patients with.

“There is a definite psychological effect that a loss of water has on civilians and responders alike,” Hayes-White said. “Losing its source of drinking water can throw an otherwise calm public into panic. Losing its source of firefighting water can throw an otherwise calm and decisive fire attack into utter desperation.”

And yet, there are no laws, local or federal, requiring seismic improvements to water and other utilities. In the Bay Area, only about 10 percent of the local water authorities had completed “substantial” earthquake retrofitting on their own, consultants told the East Bay Municipal Utility District. Only about half of the most important water tanks — the ones that serve fire hydrants — had been retrofitted.

So vulnerable is the infrastructure that water-related losses would top $6 billion in a “major event” along the San Andreas Fault, the East Bay consultants projected in 2002.

Fixing the problem would cost “likely in the billions of dollars,” the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute estimated. But since the Loma Prieta earthquake — almost 17 years ago — the region’s water utilities had spent only $300 million, it found.

Is there a doctor in the house?
In addition to the water supply, disaster-response experts identify a second critically vulnerable weakness, in the capacity of the region’s hospitals to provide even bare-bones care.

Experts say that for all the money spent on earthquake preparedness, planning has foundered when it comes to hospitals. A state law mandates that all hospital structures rated vulnerable to collapse must be retrofitted or replaced by 2013. With little work under way, many — perhaps most — hospitals are expected to miss the deadline, which has already been pushed back once.

“Hospitals are still sort of lagging behind,” said a widely cited authority on disaster medicine and earthquake-related injuries, Carl H. Schultz, a professor of clinical emergency medicine at the University of California-Irvine. “There have been some improvements made over time but really nothing substantial to the majority of hospitals.”

Hospitals out of commission
As a result, about half of the 484 hospital structures in the Bay Area would probably collapse after a major quake, according to projections by the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development. Only about 15 percent would be more or less able to function, it said, and just 1 percent would be fully functional.

With most hospitals out of commission, many people wouldn’t survive the crucial first 72 hours. And at those hospitals that did manage to stay in business, oddly enough, a big problem could be too many doctors.

Medical professionals are conditioned to rush to the scene of an emergency, but one of the lessons learned in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was that there’s no coordinated way to verify the credentials of someone who shows up after a disaster and says he’s a doctor.

“The problem for hospitals is they have no idea who these guys are,” Schultz said. “Do you really want people who may be, basically, retired or who may be marginal to be taking care of people in a hospital? Even in a disaster, you want people who would reasonably pass the sniff test if they were applying for hospital purposes ordinarily.”

Otherwise, Schultz said, “you basically say we have two standards of care: We have those for people in ‘peacetime,’ and for a disaster, we lower the standard of care.”

Schultz has long championed the Medical Disaster Response Project, which he and colleagues piloted in Orange County. The project envisions individual doctors, nurses and medical technicians, organized locally, as backpack-toting one-person MASH units, equipped to treat patients wherever they are.

“But there’s never been any large buy-in by a large community,” Schultz said, even though in big disasters, the arrival of qualified outside medical teams is always delayed.

“You had a huge impact in Katrina,” he said. “You had a huge storm blow through, and because the individuals in Louisiana did not have an adequate plan for rapidly mobilizing what resources they had, you had all these people dying waiting for resources.” 

Lessons of Katrina
Many of the disaster-response experts contacted for this article complained that much of the fault for inadequate planning for earthquakes lay with the federal Department of Homeland Security, which has emphasized preparing for terrorist-driven biological and radiological disasters over natural disasters.

“The whole business of natural-disaster planning has been just absolutely sidelined with FEMA,” said Verosub, of California’s onetime disaster task force. “There’s no focus on it whatsoever. I think that’s exactly what we saw when Katrina came through and they were just completely incapable of responding.”

It was a hard blow for disaster-response specialists when the Federal Emergency Management Agency was subsumed into the Homeland Security Department after the Sept. 11 attacks. Most of the agency’s experienced leaders left the government after it lost its Cabinet status and surrendered its operational authority to a new structure created in response to the threat of terrorism, not nature.

“As many people died in Katrina as in one of the World Trade Center towers coming down,” Schultz said. “Now, we are spending billions and billions and billions of dollars on the terrorism side, and not much on anything else. ... You would think that there should be a balance there.”

‘It’s a question of when’
Andrews, of Bush’s Homeland Security Advisory Council, defended the department. Historically, he said, federal funding for any disaster response has been inadequate. While the current focus may be driven by fears of terrorism, at least it means there is now a lot more money on the table, he maintained.

“I don’t know any government official who would ever say the funding he or she is getting is adequate,” said Andrews, who is director of homeland security projects for the private National Center for Crisis and Continuity Coordination. But “had it not been for 9/11, the funding that currently is homeland security funding that’s going to public safety agencies would never, in my view, have been available to support natural-disaster preparedness.”

Because you can’t predict them, “earthquakes are an interesting risk,” he said. “You have an annual hurricane season — you can almost count on every year you’re going to have one or two or three or four, seven or eight damaging hurricanes. There’s not an earthquake season.”

Even so, “it’s not a question of if there’s going to be another large earthquake. It’s a question of when is there another large earthquake,” said McLean of the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center. And in geologic terms, the next one is probably imminent.

“There’s about a 200-year cycle on major earthquakes in that area, and we’re a hundred years in,” McLean said. “So the reality is we’re probably halfway — and maybe a lot closer than halfway — to the next big earthquake in California.”

McLean has a simple way to make you understand just how big that next big earthquake will be.

“It would be much worse than Katrina,” he said. “It would have tremendous economic impact on our country, tremendous local impact on the Bay Area economy and the people living there, in terms of just the sheer magnitude of what it would do.”

For all its disruption, Katrina may, in fact, have been the best thing that could have happened to disaster response in a long time. If nothing else, said Hayes-White, the fire chief, Katrina is holding people’s attention.

For now, she said, “we have a very captive audience.”