The Potentially Devastating Effects of California’s Next Great Quake
by Emily (me))
On April 18, 1906, at precisely 5:12 A.M., an earthquake with a 7.9 magnitude struck San Francisco. Within minutes, hundreds of San Francisco residents were crushed and buried alive in their homes, pierced by shattering glass and struck by tumbling debris. People screamed in panic as the ground shook violently. The survivors trapped inside their homes were eventually burned alive by the ensuing fires that enveloped the city. After the fires smoldered for three straight days, the impact of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake had left 225,000 people homeless and caused about 3,000 fatalities (Zoback 2006). The earthquake was so powerful it was reportedly felt as far away as “southern Oregon, Los Angeles, and central Nevada” (Mareck 46). Could this scenario be repeated today, but with even greater consequences? According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the chances of another major earthquake striking northern California by the year 2032 is 62 percent. In addition, geologists agree that the longer we wait for the next earthquake, the more energy accumulates inside the Earth—which will result in even bigger shock waves. Dr. Turcotte, a professor of Geology at the University of California, Davis wrote that “if a great earthquake struck the San Andreas fault (7.7 or greater), the longer we wait the larger the expected earthquake will be.” His colleague, UC Davis Geology professor Dr. Gry Barfod, agrees that “the longer it takes the [expected] earthquake to hit, the more damage it will cause.” Scientists in the past have induced earthquakes by setting off atomic bombs and drilling deep into the Earth. However, it is illegal for scientists to deliberately cause an earthquake without being liable for financial damages and human injuries or fatalities. So while northern Californians are waiting for the next great quake, are they really just sitting ducks, as vulnerable and unsuspecting as the 9/11 victims who went to work at the World Trade Center on that fateful day? If the next major earthquake hit California now, in 2010, during the height of rush hour traffic, what might the effects be for northern Californians (in terms of human casualties, property damage, water pipelines, and major lifelines)? Which places might be relatively safe and which might be more dangerous?
What would happen to California’s economy in the event of an earthquake? The reports from research scientists, engineers and geologists look grim. According to J. Madeleine Nash, author of Time’s “April 18, 1906: Lessons from the Earthquake That Shook the World,” the next major earthquake could transform San Francisco into New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. “The vividness of what it means to a modern city to lose so much housing and so many jobs has given the 1906 centennial a somber edge. At risk in this case is not just a very large population . . . but also a vibrant $350 billion economy that includes one of the nation’s largest financial hubs . . . its busiest ports, and one of the world’s densest concentrations of technical and scientific talent.” A study entitled When the Big One Strikes Again goes further and estimates that if another “quake were to match the 1906 disaster—an event of magnitude 7.9 along the San Andreas Fault—it could cause as much as $120 billion in building damage” (qtd. in Marek 2006). Another report has estimated the damage would be over $200 billion (Marshall 8). In Civil Engineering News, author Robert Reid writes that “between 7,000 and 10,000 commercial buildings would be destroyed, with around 250,000 families displaced if a major earthquake was to strike again” (2006). What would happen to the residents who receive services from these commercial buildings, such as telephone, electricity, or water? The Earthquake Engineering Research Institute reports that out of the region’s 484 hospital buildings, “only 66 . . . could safely remain open” (qtd. in Marek 2006). Thousands of people would be out of jobs. Even if these findings are only partially correct, the next major earthquake would still be completely disastrous for California’s economy.
The human casualties would also be devastating. San Francisco’s population has doubled since 1906, and the entire Bay Area now has over 7 million residents. The residents most at risk live in rent-controlled apartments or older buildings with basements converted to parking garages. In her article entitled “100 years on, you'd think San Francisco would be ready,” Jessica Marshall writes:
Depending on the time of day the quake hits San Francisco, an estimated 1500 people in the city would be killed by falling buildings and fires. Thousands would be hospitalized and almost 360,000 would be made homeless. Nearly 40 percent of the city’s private buildings could be completely destroyed. That is because about 84 percent of them pre-date modern building codes from the 1970s, including the charming Victorian structures that epitomize San Francisco. In the wider Bay Area, about 6,000 would die (8-11).
Many rent-controlled apartments in San Francisco also have “a bottom floor comprising a garage or a shop front with large windows that will offer little structural support during shaking” (Marshall 8). The death toll would immediately rise for the residents in this scenario.
If you’re traveling by car or bus during an earthquake, you’re also at a greater risk of being killed. With new suburbs creeping up all around the Bay Area fault lines, “a tide of commuters now crosses the faults to go in and out of the city. In a repeat of the 1906 earthquake, these arteries would be broken” (Marshall 8). Engineers and geologists report that the Bay Bridge will completely collapse into the Pacific Ocean if another major earthquake struck California. And what if this earthquake occurred during the height of rush hour at 5:15 P.M.? For the hundreds of people who commute to work daily by driving across the Bay Bridge, they could be killed instantly. According to Mary Lou Zoback, a seismologist at USGS’s Menlo park office, “None of us believe the [Bay Bridge] will be standing after the next earthquake” (Nash 2006). Dr. Barfod, at the University of California, Davis, adds: “The Bay Bridge would be hit worse because it lies on wet sediment.” But there is good news for people who travel on the Golden Gate Bridge. Since it lies on solid rock, it is in no danger of collapsing during an earthquake. And commuters who travel on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) can expect to feel safer during the quake. Approximately “300,000 people ride the BART system each weekday” (Nash 55) but because the BART system was built in 1972, it is more up-to-date with earthquake building codes. However, in Civil Engineering, James Dunn writes: “Soil conditions around the San Francisco end of the Transbay Tube are poor.” An earthquake could still have the potential to wipe out the BART system, with major shock waves loosening it from the tunnel and sending it to the bay (Dunn 2001). “The trains within the tube hold about 2500 people during rush hour. In the worst case, the tube would rupture and fill with water and downtown San Francisco’s BART stations, which are below sea level, would be flooded” (Marshall 8). It could also take as long as three years to repair the system, and get the BART up and running again.
On the bright side, a California resident can expect to feel safer during an earthquake. Public education and awareness about earthquakes has increased, and many elementary schools practice earthquake safety drills on a monthly basis. California is the state that is the most up-to-date on building and safety codes. And while it is true that several hundred thousand people died in the recent Haiti earthquake, California is much better equipped to handle an emergency. There are even websites where you can sign up to be a future volunteer when this earthquake does strike. So what should you do yourself to prepare for the next big quake? Dr. Barfod advises the following: “Make sure you’re not standing next to a big building. Try to find a foundation that has granite or solid rock. Try to stay in cities that have high elevations. Stay away from the coast, since a big earthquake will set off a tsunami. Also, stay away from brick buildings. If you have to travel on the Bay Bridge, however, you’re just going to have to take your chances and hope that the earthquake won’t strike at that moment.” If you live in California, this advice may someday save your life.
Barfod, Gry. Personal interview. 2 Feb. 2010.
Dunn, James, et al. "Raising the Bar on BART." Civil Engineering (08857024) 71.12 (2001): 60. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 28 Feb. 2010.
Marek, Angie C. "GETTING READY FOR THE BIG ONE." U.S. News & World Report 140.14 (2006): 46-48. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 3 Mar. 2010.
Marshall, Jessica. "100 years on, you'd think San Francisco would be ready." New Scientist 189.2547 (2006): 8-11. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 12 Feb. 2010.
Nash, J. Madeleine. "April 18, 1906: Lessons from the Earthquake That Shook the World." Time 167.15 (2006): 55-63. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 23 Feb. 2010.
Reid, Robert L. "Study Details Effects of the Next Major Earthquake in San Francisco." Civil Engineering (08857024) 76.6 (2006): 25-27. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 3 Mar. 2010.
Turcotte, Donald. Email. 25 Feb. 2010.