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September 06, 2005

A note for my Bay Area readers

Guess what? We're next.

That report the Bush administration ignored, which said two of the three most likely disasters to strike the US were a terrorist attack on New York City and a hurricane hitting New Orleans?

The third was a major earthquake in the Bay Area.

If you've lived here for any length of time at all, you've thought about earthquakes. Perhaps you lived through the Loma Prieta quake, with its spectacular damage to the Marina district, Watsonville, Los Gatos, Santa Cruz, and Oakland. As frightening as that was to watch on the news, almost all of us got through that just fine. Until I turned on the radio, I actually enjoyed the Loma Prieta quake. We're still paying for it, but aside from the 66 official deaths and just under 4,000 official injuries, life went on.

The Loma Prieta quake measured 6.9 on the moment magnitude scale, 7.1 on the Richter. The heaviest damage, and heaviest concentration of casualties, was in developed areas within 20 miles of the epicenter: Santa Cruz and Watsonville. Both are, essentially, small towns. Sixty miles away in the central Bay Area, the quake put a major bridge and an arterial freeway out of commission, the bridge for a year, the freeway for ten years.

Loma Prieta was a medium-sized quake.

Three main earthquake faults crisscross the Bay Area. There's the mother of them all, the San Andreas, capable of inflicting a killer 8.0 temblor like the one that leveled San Francisco a hundred years ago next April. The Hayward fault runs through the densely populated western tier of East Bay cities from Fremont to Richmond, and (some speculate) continues through the North Bay as the Rodgers Creek Fault. The Calaveras fault likewise skewers the interior East Bay, Pleasanton and Walnut Creek and Concord. San Jose nestles among the three, which meet to its south in Hollister.

In 2002, the USGS estimated the likelihood of a quake the size of Loma Prieta or larger hitting the central Bay Area in the next 20 years. Those chances were two out of three. They were immediately criticized for being too optimistic.

For "in the next 20 years," you could read "sometime in 2022 or thereabouts." Statistically speaking, you're every bit as justified in reading that as "maybe tomorrow."

We chose our house in Pinole for many reasons. One of them was underneath the house. Go down a foot and you hit bedrock. This makes it hard to plant a tree, but the house shakes less in a quake. Right after we moved in, a quake hit that took our realtor's deck off. She lives a couple miles away. We didn't feel a thing.

One of the likely quake scenarios for the next two decades is a 6.9 quake on the Hayward Fault, ground shifting for fifty miles from Point Pinole to Mission Peak. Bedrock or no, we will likely lose our house if that happens. One hopes it will remain standing long enough for us to save the dog and the hard drive.

We're a bit east of the Hayward Fault, a few miles away. More than a million people live almost atop it. In a Hayward Fault temblor the size of Loma Prieta, projections of ground shaking between the fault and the Bay ranges from "buildings destroyed" to "buildings destroyed before you can leave." Damage in the Central Bay Area will be hundreds, perhaps thousands of times worse than in 1989's quake.

But say you get through the actual quake uninjured. Say, even, that your house survives miraculously.

Most of the water we drink in the Bay Area comes from the Sierra Nevada. To get to us, it has to cross those faults. Richmond, Oakland, Berkeley, and cities south maintain reservoirs on the hills - directly above the Hayward Fault. Not only does this mean no tap water, but this poses a problem when your neighbor's broken gas main starts a fire. The firefighters cannot get water to put it out. They may not even be able to get to the fire. Many of the East Bay's firestations are within a mile of the fault. Oh, well, you have gasoline in the car, so you decide to high-tail it for Sacramento, or Stockton, or Los Angeles. But all the freeways cross the Hayward Fault: two, route 13 and Interstate 580, were actually built along the top of the damn thing, and route 24 goes through a tunnel atop it.

Heaven forbid that bookshelf you always meant to bolt falls in the quake, breaking your spouse's arm. Eight of the 26 hospitals in the East Bay, and almost all of them on your side of the hills, are located within one mile of the Hayward fault. Others farther away from the fault may well be severely damaged.

In Berkeley, El Cerrito, and parts of Oakland, the population directly astride the fault is rather affluent. But a very large percentage of the people who live along the fault, in San Pablo, Richmond, East Oakland and San Leandro, are far from affluent. On the flatlands of the Bay shore, where ground shaking is certain to be catastrophic, a very large percentage of residents live in grinding poverty not dissimilar to that in the poorest sections of New Orleans. Alienation among some of these folks is fairly pointed. Some of them use guns on a frequent basis in the absence of a natural disaster.

A million people will be without potable water in a matter of minutes. A million people will run out of food in a couple days. Whole neighborhoods will burn. Hundreds of thousands of injured people will need medical care, but they won't get it. I wrote a magazine article ten years ago on the topic of earthquake preparedness, and one of my sources - an emergency room RN in the preparedness business - said that we should all expect, in a big quake, to be on our own for two or three days. The Bay Area will be largely inaccessible after such a quake. Highways useless, airports - all of them on vulnerable bay fill - out of commission, communication lines down and emergency crews insanely preoccupied. It would probably be two or three days, she said, before the Feds would be able to get to us. We should be prepared to live on our own for that long, with no power, plumbing, medical care nor other emergency services.

That was, of course, when we assumed the Feds would try to get to us.

Be prepared to survive a lot longer than that. Be prepared to eat stored food, to drink water out of holes in the ground, to have no help when the fraction of a percent of the underclass that is already looting and killing decides they can operate with a bit more impunity. Be prepared, should you survive, to have a tearful nation ask why you were so goddamned stupid. The USGS warned you. The people in New Orleans had just two days warning, and so far you've had three years.

Have you, sitting on the powederkeg earthquake faults in the Bay Area, tsked at the people who didn't leave New Orleans?

Have you even bolted your bookshelves?

Posted by Chris Clarke at September 6, 2005 04:34 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Tracked: September 6, 2005 09:13 PM
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"Have you even bolted your bookshelves?"

I live in CA as well and you'd better believe that anyone here who tries to blame the victims is getting a deluge of questions like that from me.

I also thought, in light of the excuses for how long it took help to arrive in New Orleans, to look up how long it took the National Guard and Bush Sr. to get out to San Fransisco after the Loma Prieta Earthquake.

The quake hit early evening Oct. 17th. New York National Guard were on their way to relieve CA National Guard by the 20th. Bush Sr. was on the ground in CA by the 20th as well.

I especially loved Rumsfield's (?) excuse on CNN today that well, they had moved all the military equipment out of the path of the hurricane so it wouldn't get damaged, as they always do. Aside from the question of why couldn't they have also tried to move some of the people there is also the fact that it doesn't take all that much time to fly from TN to NO on a commerical airline. And we're supposed to trust these people to win wars in foreign countries and keep our soldiers safe?

Posted by: Jenny K at September 6, 2005 06:09 PM
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This is why my mom asks me if I have bottled water handy. I used to think it was a cute "Mom's worried about me!" kind of thing. Now I take it very, very seriously.

I've been thinking long and hard about the completion of the latest portion of the Bay Bridge and all the dickering and bickering. Now I want to scream THAT'S ENOUGH! DO IT AND DO IT RIGHT!

But, heck, even if the Bay Bridge were as sturdy as a rock, that doesn't begin to solve the problem. Thank you for the reminder.

Posted by: Pepper at September 6, 2005 06:55 PM
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we have some bottled water and earthquake supplies, of course. i think i last checked them 9 years ago, when we moved to our current house, which is within a mile of the hayward fault... and camping gear! as long as the garage holds up, i can probably find it in a pinch.... i think there's a first aid kit there someplace, too.

so assuming there aren't gas leaks, i can boil water on the camp stove and whip up petrified mac & cheese! plus, there's stuff in the freezer! we're good.

i used to live in charleston, s.c., and had many friends there when hurricane hugo struck in 1989 [just a couple weeks before loma prieta]. there was a lot of damage, but thankfully it was not so catastrophic. as i heard it -- with the power out, people ended up having block BBQ's to use what was in the fridge and freezer. that's probably been happening in less damaged parts of the gulf coast.

but -- this strategy is obviously not a viable response to "the big one." not in the devastated parts of the gulf, and not here if the worst earthquake hits.

Posted by: Kathy A at September 6, 2005 09:53 PM
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p.s. -- bookshelves are bolted. and the water heater is braced.

Posted by: Kathy A at September 6, 2005 09:55 PM
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We make a couple of 8 or 9 day rafting trips a year. Over the years we have decided to have rafting supplies always ready to go plus a stock of freeze dried foods for emergencies. What we discovered was that water was always the issue. Taking along enough water for 6 people for 8 days was quite a chore. The solution seemed to be haul enough water along or us a hiking type purifiers (which are a pain to use for large groups). Then we found the Katadyn/Ortlieb gravity filter. 5 liters per hour from a 10 liter bag that you simply hang up, and gravity does the rest. We got ours for $60. We keep it in our kitchen box that holds all of the cooking and basic camp equipment (stove, lantern, hoses, TP, soap, etc.). This is kept next to 2 full 20lb propane tanks and and supply of freeze dried food. This way our camping supplies can double as our emergency supplies.

Posted by: littleboy at September 6, 2005 10:30 PM
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I'm just a few miles from you over in Concord right near Buchanan Field. We won't be going anywhere; we have too many cats. We are relatively well prepared. Bookcases are bolted, water heater is braced...wrench ready to turn off gas. Question: Is the water in a hot tub potable?

We have a camp stove...sleeping bags...some canned goods. I really, really am uncomfortable around weapons (NYC Liberal sort of thing)but may consider a...crossbow? I dont' know...
If you want to discuss disaster plans sometime...

Posted by: The CultureGhost at September 6, 2005 10:44 PM
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Hot tubs are breeding grounds for bacteria. If the water's chlorinated, it might be OK.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 7, 2005 06:39 AM
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bottled water? i just plan on looting in the aftermath.

ai. believe me, this has been on my mind. and i have little to add.

Posted by: siona at September 7, 2005 06:39 AM
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Of course, bookshelf bolting, reasonable as it is, is frowned upon when you're a renter. I have one tall bookshelf, and I put it in a corner where it wouldn't do much damage if it fell. But I'm not sure I'm up for the hit on the security deposit that I'd get for the hole in the landlord's wall.

Posted by: paperwight at September 7, 2005 07:16 AM
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right on chris. a reminder that is always timely. we lived in santa cruz in 1989 in a very old woodframe house that was not damaged. it did shake like mad. we got disaster stuff together asap. now we're on the olympic peninsula, where quakes also may happen. we still have the hardware, but we need more canned goods. and a water filter.

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at September 7, 2005 09:30 AM
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When I took a geology class in college the professor talked about nuclear power plants on fault lines and schools and hospitals because the land is cheap. I just figured he was telling the truth but now I wonder. Are there nuclear power plants on what we consider to be the most vulnerable fault lines? Do they pose the sort of apocalyptic danger that I'm guessing they do or am I (please, God) wrong?

Posted by: eRobin at September 7, 2005 11:14 AM
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If the water heater makes it through, we have 30 gallons of clean water on tap. I'm thinking we need a filter as well. Littleboy, where did you get that filter?

We have the camping supplies handy and keep some emergency stuff in the car, which is usually parked where the house probably won't fall on it.

There's a thread about preparedness in one of the off-topic fora over at -- someone mentioned that she'd bought a couple of prepared emergency kits that come in backpacks, with room for some of one's own necessities. This sounds like a very good idea.

As for the rest, I'm still thinking. I asked a friend for an hour or three with him on the pistol range, and we just need to schedule it. This was before Katrina, and purely for athletic-academic reasons; I wonder if I'd be any good at it. I still wonder. I'm irritable but definitely not a shoot-'em-up type.

And we both realized that as we're in walking distance of the nursing home Joe's mother was in, we'd have a duty to that place and those folks too. Another reason for backpack kits.

Posted by: Ron Sullivan at September 7, 2005 02:11 PM
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Thanks for the reminder. Also, something else to think about - cash.

I live right atop the Hayward fault (knock on wood). One of the things my family is starting to do is sock away a bit of emergency cash. If the hospitals won't be getting electricity, what makes you think the ATMs will?

And yeah, when I get my new bookshelves in two weeks, I'm bolting them to the wall.

Posted by: resignedidealist at September 7, 2005 02:20 PM
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Chris ... I'd love to hear more about why, given all that, you still live there ...

-- Jarrett, recently decamped to Vancouver, which is no better off and much deeper in denial ...

Posted by: Jarrett at September 7, 2005 11:21 PM
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Do a google search for: katadyn ortlieb

Don't remember where we got ours but NRS has them fo $60, which is about the best price I've seen (and I've seen some at $105). They filter down to 0.2 microns,which is good for just about anything other than viruses I'm told.

Posted by: littleboy at September 8, 2005 12:52 PM
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cash is a good idea. funny how it disappears when i have it around, though...

why do people live where they live? friends, family, job, own the house, like the area... i grew up in los angeles, no better earthquake-wise. lived a while in the south -- hurricane country. also a year in japan -- typhoons PLUS earthquakes.

paperweight -- there are things you can do as a tenant. a decent landlord will realize his/her property is protected if the bookshelves are bolted. but a bad landlord usually will be ok if the holes are spackled and painted when you move out.

Posted by: Kathy A at September 8, 2005 01:34 PM
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Oh, have I been thinking about this! I'm a sitting duck! I don't know how to drive, and couldn't afford a car even if I did. I also have two chronic illnesses, and a thyroid condition. Obviously medication is number 1 in my survival kit.

Posted by: ghostcatbce at September 10, 2005 01:44 AM
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