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San Francisco has its faults

Commemorations of the centennial of the April 18, 1906, earthquake have consumed San Francisco, obsessively.
Holly Ryan, a geologist with USGS from Menlo Park, Calif., right, describes her poster to Frederick Schult, a geophysicist, during the 100th Anniversary Earthquake Conference at The Moscone Center in San Francisco on April 19.
Holly Ryan, a geologist with USGS from Menlo Park, Calif., right, describes her poster to Frederick Schult, a geophysicist, during the 100th Anniversary Earthquake Conference at The Moscone Center in San Francisco on April 19.Randi Lynn Beach / Washington Post
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This is a city obsessed with itself, and lately it has been really obsessing about the fact that a century ago, it was almost obliterated. And so, naturally, commemorations of the centennial of the April 18, 1906, earthquake have consumed the city, obsessively.

Organizers have staged earthquake film fests, ecumenical earthquake services and a ballet that "spotlights the advances in earthquake engineering technology." There was interpretive dance, performed to the sound of the Earth's magma. It seemed like there was a lecture on soil liquefaction every night. Tours of seismic retrofits were hot tickets. If there is a kid left in San Francisco who doesn't know the difference between a strike-slip and a dip-slip fault, he should get to the Exploratorium immediately for an exhibit called "San Francisco in Jell-O."

You couldn't turn around here without bumping into a banner showing sepia photographs of the city as a smoking ruin -- like, wow, once upon a time we were reduced to rubble. And on and on, in an endless loop, the PSAs reminding residents in one of the best-fed, highest-tech cities on the planet to store 72 hours' worth of water, food and D batteries. Why? For the Big One!

Because it is now fashionable to assume that a repeat of the 1906-size event is inevitable. Fun fact: There's a 62 percent probability of a 6.7-magnitude earthquake or larger striking the Bay Area in the next 26 years. As a bumper sticker here reads: "It's not if, it's when."

The epicenter of earthquake obsession
So, if you wanted to go completely native, the granddaddy of them all last week was the 100th Anniversary Earthquake Conference, which brought together thousands of earth scientists, structural engineers and emergency managers to work themselves into a cross-disciplinary lather about extreme events. Forgive us, but there's no more precise description: It was the epicenter of earthquake obsession.

"Are you earthquake junkies?" Fiona Ma, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, asked the crowd in the main hall at the Moscone Convention Center on Thursday. Oh, they were. They waved and hooted. Like , you go, Fiona, we're mad for anything to do with seismic wave propagation . Ma said that before she moved to San Francisco in 1988, she'd never given earthquakes a thought. Then Loma Prieta hit, in 1989, a middle-size temblor centered 70 miles away, and the San Francisco City Hall (which was destroyed in the 1906 event; see sepia photographs) was severely damaged again. And Ma realized, when the Big One really does come, "my district would be rubble."

Rubble. "Killer buildings." Catastrophic failure. This is how people at this conference talked. In this crowd, buildings don't fail, they "pancake." They "snap."

In the convention hall, where the exhibitors arranged their wares (broadband seismometers, programmable "shake tables," U.S. Geological Survey coffee mugs, T-shirts that read: "My faults are normal," and touts from Allstate insurance), we pass by the portable medical tents and state-of-the-art emergency-ops van. We find ourselves staring at the "IsoPod," which is essentially a six-foot-long clear plastic tube that a victim would be zipped into, with gloves that a doctor or nurse could use to manipulate the patient-in-a-condom -- without having to actually touch the person -- in the event that your earthquake is accompanied by contamination or disease.

"I like to say if you end up in one of my products, you're not having a good day," said George Mallinckrodt, West Coast market manager of TVI Corp., who also sells autopsy pods (which are used in the field).

"The CDC is snapping them up," Mallinckrodt said.

The 'next Katrina'?
Typical title for a lecture? "Catastrophic Insurance for Natural Disasters -- Is Now the Time?" and "Loss Modeling" as well as a personal favorite, "Is California the Next Katrina?" And guess what? They're not being metaphorical. Katrina was on everybody's mind.

When the next extreme earthquake strikes, many experts consider the California delta east of the Bay Area, with its 2,600 miles of weak earthen levees, to be exceedingly vulnerable. Two-thirds of the state, including Los Angeles, gets its drinking water from the delta.

On Wednesday, Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic senator from California, addressed the gathering and reminisced fondly on her nine years as San Francisco mayor, when she was always within a few feet of an emergency radio -- just in case. Feinstein confessed what worried her were those dams of the delta, whose rupture would be "beyond any disaster we've ever experienced."

Really? So it would be bad. "The entire state," Feinstein said, "would be brought to a standstill."

On Thursday morning, some of the rock stars of the conference filled Hall E for the plenary session titled "Ground Motion Simulations for a Repeat of the 1906 Earthquake," with estimates of "deaths, dollars and downtime" (the three D's of the apocalypse). Gregory Beroza, geophysicist from Stanford, kicked it off. What you saw in the hall, on the two big screens, was a three-dimensional, satellite-eye view of a 7.8-magnitude earthquake, starting two miles offshore of the San Francisco Zoo and rolling up and down the San Andreas fault in real time (an earthquake takes only about 90 seconds to move 300 miles along a fault). The simulation, generated by our friends the supercomputers, showed the ground move in waves, and it highlighted the worst shaking in a red mist. The movie was not much, compared with what the wizards of Hollywood special effects can do, but it had the advantage of being, datawise, a "real" simulation, and very informative.

The simulation revealed that San Francisco in 1906 was actually lucky . Because of the location of the epicenter, the shock waves and surface rumblings created by the sudden slip of the two vast tectonic plates were directed away from the city. Think of cracking the whip; what bites is the tip. "If you were mayor of San Francisco," Beroza said, having the epicenter in your back yard "was a good place for it to start."

Then Beroza tweaked the model and had it simulate an earthquake the size of the 1906 event, but with its epicenter far north of San Francisco. B-b-bummer. A few people in the crowd (not likely the seismologists) gasped. This simulation channeled huge, angry red waves of intense ground-shaking into not only San Francisco (all red), but the cities that were mostly spared in 1906, such as Berkeley and Oakland, the entire East Bay and on into the delta. "The take-home lesson," Beroza said, "is it could've been worse." The Big One wasn't the Bad One.

But it was bad enough. Charles Kircher, a structural engineer, stood and ran down his estimates of the three D's. A reprise of 1906 in today's Bay Area and surrounding counties could kill as many as 3,400 people, severely damage or destroy 130,000 homes and buildings, displace or make homeless as many as 700,000 people and cause $150 billion in damage.

Although this sounds awful, Kircher pointed out that one's chances of dying is low -- around 1 in 1,000. That made us feel better. Then Richard Eisner, regional administrator in the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, tried to put it into perspective. "This is like Katrina," he said, "without the three days' warning." Hmm.

Eisner assured the audience that "California is no Louisiana," by which he suggested that the Sportsman's State was unprepared. "Louisiana," Eisner said, "imploded during their event."

Why can't you predict earthquakes? There was a time, in the 1970s, when leading geologists told Congress that within a decade they would be able to do just that.

Ilya Dricker, a seismologist who develops software to monitor worldwide earthquake activity, stood drinking a happy-hour beer while behind him one of his monitors showed real-life earthquakes rupturing off the coast of Chile. Then Indonesia. Then Japan!

There sure are a lot of them? "Oh, yes, all day, all night," Dricker said. He explained that earthquake prediction proved to be much more complex, and he gave as an example: Hold a glass in your hand and squeeze. "You know it will break. But when? And where?" Dricker said he thought the field of seismology was wracked by guilt. "Because we can't predict! Why not? Who needs us?" Dricker sucked on his Anchor Steam.

Back in 1975, Chinese seismologists did predict the Haicheng earthquake, which killed 2,000 people. What they noticed were changing ground water levels and what Michael Reichle of the California Geological Survey described as "peculiar animal behaviors," namely snakes crawling out of their winter burrows and freezing to death. Frozen serpents do draw attention. But attempts to reproduce their results have failed, and "enthusiasm for prediction science has dampened," Reichle said.

It was Charles Richter, he of the Richter scale, who once said that earthquake prediction "is the province of charlatans and fools."

Lucy Jones of the Southern California office of the USGS is not so downcast. "These are tantalizing times," she said. The scientists are now pretty good at knowing where earthquakes will occur. The trick is to amass as much data as possible and begin to look for patterns, for clusters, for "triggerings," she said. Although there might be 20,000 little earthquakes a year in California, it would likely take many more data points to see a pattern that would indicate when the next big one will occur. "Only a seismologist thinks we don't have enough earthquakes," Jones said.

Outside the convention center, the fire department was drawing a lunchtime crowd to watch it burn down oversize dollhouses to demonstrate that if only homeowners used fire-resistant paint (which didn't ignite), the city would not be engulfed in flames after the next Big One. After all the simulated death and destruction inside the conference hall, this was not very dramatic. You really wanted something bigger, better and much, much worse.