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The Next Big One Is Coming—Ready or Not

Ethan Watters | October 17, 2014 | Lifestyle Story City Life

Editor's Note: This is the first of many stories about earthquakes past and future that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of our October cover package, "Cracks in the Earth." To see the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.

“The next person who tells me that they don’t have to worry about a quake because their building survived Loma Prieta, I’m going to slap them,” says Patrick Otellini, San Francisco’s newly minted chief resilience officer. Otellini is joking, but his point is deadly serious. Yes, we may have survived the magnitude-6.9 earthquake that struck 25 years ago this month, but the next one that comes along could be far stronger, and we have to be ready for devastation on a whole different scale.

Otellini was just nine years old when Loma Prieta hit at 5:04 p.m. on October 17, 1989. His dad was commuting home from work at the time, and to this day Otellini recalls feeling sick to his stomach with worry when he heard that a freeway had collapsed on itself. “He was nowhere near the danger,” says Otellini. “But I can still remember that moment of sheer panic.”

Like Otellini, many people who study earthquakes and are making plans for the next Big One carry around a personal memory of Loma Prieta. They also know that at any moment now, a cataclysmic earthquake could strike the Bay Area, causing thousands of deaths, vast physical damage, and massive disruption. The recent 6.0 temblor in Napa and its scores of unnerving aftershocks gave us just a taste of what is to come. Although there was only one death and a handful of critical injuries, that quake still managed to break water and gas lines, spark fires that destroyed homes, knock out power to tens of thousands of residents, and cause a projected $2 billion in damage. The 1906-scale quake that looms in the Bay Area’s future will be 708 times more powerful than the one in Napa—and 31 times as powerful as Loma Prieta.

The possibility of losing friends, your home, your livelihood, or even your life in a matter of moments—of being thrown into a mass-casualty event with no warning—is not something that anyone wants to dwell on. But the fact remains that if you are a baby boomer or younger, the chances are better than not that a major quake (7.0 or bigger) will happen in your lifetime. This is not a worst-case scenario: It’s an inevitable one. Over the relatively young life of the California landmass, thousands of such quakes have rocked the area. With a magnitude-7.9 temblor like the one that leveled San Francisco in 1906, the death toll will be in the thousands. Estimates vary, but one study commissioned for the 100th anniversary of the 1906 quake, conducted by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, suggests that perhaps 2,000 will die if a 7.9 quake strikes at night, when much of the population is at home in relatively safe wood-framed buildings. The same study estimates that the death toll may approach 3,400 if the quake occurs when people are at work in larger, more deadly commercial buildings. Smaller wood-framed buildings, even when they fail, usually don’t collapse all the way, often leaving people trapped but alive. When larger concrete buildings come down, they can pancake, one story compressing the rest until there is nothing left of the structure and little chance to survive. Not all commercial buildings are more dangerous than wood-framed homes, of course: Nonductile (that is, inflexible) concrete buildings constructed before the building codes of the 1980s are the ones to be most wary of.

The scary news doesn’t end there: In a 7.9 quake, tens of thousands of people will be injured and up to 600,000 displaced from their homes around the Bay Area. Scores will be trapped alive in partially collapsed buildings all over the city, particularly along the waterfront, through South of Market, and into the inner Mission—areas built on marshland. The ground underneath these areas appears firm until it shakes, whereupon the soil dilates, water is squeezed upward, and the land becomes the consistency of cake batter. Buildings whose foundations are not connected to bedrock can simply tip over or sink like boats. (We don’t know how many of these buildings there are.)

As if all that weren’t worrisome enough, it will be just a few minutes after we’ve survived the next Big One that we will surely smell smoke. The fire department estimates that there will be up to 80 fires in San Francisco alone, mostly started by the blowtorch intensity of broken gas lines. There will be too many fires and not enough firefighters.

“I can’t even fathom fighting 80 fires,” says Assistant Deputy Fire Chief Ken Lombardi. “In a major earthquake, you have to change your mindset,” he tells me as we look at a map of the city in his office near AT&T Park. “We’ll have to think, ‘OK, we’re losing this block, but we’re going to save the next.’ After that, you’re thinking about saving neighborhoods.” And after that, firefighters may have to retreat to wide avenues like Van Ness to try to save large sections of the city while other large swaths burn to cinders—a scenario very much like that in 1906.

So this is the blunt but necessary truth: When the next Big One hits, there will be death, damage, and injury from Monterey to as far north as Mendocino. Disaster coming our way is as certain as tomorrow’s dawn—the only difference is that we know when the sun will rise. We can push these facts out of our mind—or we can think about them in another way, one that steers a middle path between debilitating fear and denial. As a community, we learned a great deal both during and after Loma Prieta. We now know much more about the geology of the land, the strengths and weaknesses of our buildings, and, most surprisingly, how we can expect people to behave during and after a disaster. We’re far better prepared now than we were in ’89. Indeed, it might be some consolation to the families of the 63 people who were killed 25 years ago to know that when the next Big One hits, the lessons learned during Loma Prieta will save exponentially more lives.

Little is confrontational or sexy about the business of earthquake hazard mitigation—it engenders a type of progressive politics that doesn’t lend itself to protests or bumper stickers. Increasing the structural stability of a building or bridge, improving the resiliency of the fire department’s emergency water system, or predicting the forces generated by a given magnitude of quake requires years of expertise and experience. And yet, it’s these arcane pursuits that will determine our fate in the next quake.

Born after the 1906 quake, the ever-deepening science of how buildings move and fail has bit by bit been incorporated into building codes as new laws and regulations have been passed, many during the time of heightened awareness and public solidarity that follows an earthquake. Unreinforced masonry buildings were outlawed in 1933, the year that a quake in Long Beach destroyed 230 schools across Southern California. That same year another law was passed, requiring local governments to establish building departments and inspect new structures for their ability to withstand the side-to-side forces of a quake. Another set of critical changes, particularly upgrades of standards for hospitals, was implemented after the 1971 San Fernando earthquake.

In San Francisco after Loma Prieta, bond measures were created to fund seismic upgrades to schools and public universities and to retrofit City Hall. Hospitals and fire and police departments have been shored up. The city’s emergency water system, which failed during Loma Prieta, has been upgraded. Dozens of new cisterns have been installed under key intersections to ensure that fire department vehicles have readily available water. Whether these improvements will be enough is unclear. The city’s impressive secondary water system, supplied and gravity-pressurized by reservoirs and tanks on Twin Peaks and other city high points, was designed and put in place after the 1906 quake, but hasn’t yet been expanded into areas of the Sunset and the Richmond. For now, the cisterns, which hold only 85,000 gallons of water each, are the main backup for those neighborhoods if residential pipes fail. Of note, it took more than 10 million gallons of water to douse a recent commercial building fire in Mission Bay.

Loma Prieta is also credited with creating the political will for a scientific study of the region’s bridges and highways. As a result, the Embarcadero Freeway was taken down, the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge was built, and major retrofits of other bridges have been completed.

In 2000, the city opened its new City Emergency Operations Center next to the softball fields at Turk and Gough Streets. When the next quake hits, this will be where the mayor and his key staff, along with representatives from every city service, gather to coordinate responses. The nerve center is a large room with groupings of tables for fire and rescue, human services, transportation, planning, infrastructure, law enforcement, logistics, and so on. “Each service tends to think about its own specialty, especially the first responders: fire, police, and medical,” says Rob Dudgeon of the Department of Emergency Management. “But in a major disaster, we have to immediately start thinking about the big picture, including things like public works, sanitation, and reconstruction. It’s bigger than just putting the fires out. There is now a unified command structure in place. When the next earthquake happens, the response will be dramatically different than with Loma Prieta.”

The scientists, politicians, engineers, and policy makers who have pushed through these changes will be unsung heroes after the next Big One— we will pay little attention to the buildings that did not fall down and the blocks that did not burn. But thanks to their tireless work, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of peo- ple who otherwise would have died will survive.

But what’s crucial to understand is that mitigation isn’t just about saving lives—it’s also about saving the region’s economy. The immediate economic damage caused by a big earthquake will be immense. In less than two minutes, up to 120,000 structures in the area may become unusable, including up to 10,000 commercial buildings. The price tag for that damage will be in the neighborhood of $120 billion, and the fires that arise may raise that cost to $150 billion in the following hours and days. (Ironically, wood-framed buildings, which do well during quakes, are the most susceptible to fires that come afterward.) But what is not widely grasped is that this will be only the beginning of the quake’s cost: If the damage is extensive enough, it could send the regional economy into a death spiral.

“I think people are hugely unprepared for the amount of time the recovery will take,” says Mary Comerio, a UC Berkeley professor and an expert in disaster recovery. “There is a fantasy that we’re all going to recover in a year or two. It can be 5 or 10 years, even 20 years, before things really get done. If it’s your house, your neighborhood, your business, the length of time makes a big difference. If it takes too long, there can be disinvestment and flight.”

Whether the economy rebounds or tanks depends on hidden tipping points. The difference between losing 10 percent of our regional housing stock and losing 15 percent, for example, might be huge. Somewhere between those two figures may be an economic trigger that will induce what researchers at Risk Management Solutions (RMS), the world’s largest catastrophe risk modeling firm, call a series of “cascading consequences.” When a certain percentage of people decide that it’s not worth repairing or rebuilding, others will follow suit en masse.

The same thing happens when a critical percentage of employers move or shutter their business: The loss of income and jobs affects people’s decisions to rebuild or repair their homes. As the workforce moves away, more businesses decide to relocate. These economic aftershocks can end up costing more than the initial disaster itself—and lengthen the recovery time from years to decades. Researchers at RMS have a name for such an event: They call it a Super Catastrophe, or a Super Cat for short.

While San Francisco has prepared for a Super Cat, it still has significant vulnerabilities. Owners of private homes and apartment buildings, for example, have been slow to upgrade to modern standards. San Francisco is about to start twisting arms in this regard: In September 2014, the city began posting signs on thousands of wood-framed soft-story buildings (those with at least two stories above a garage or shop window, built before 1978, and containing five or more dwelling units). The text, printed in English, Spanish, and Chinese, reads: “Earthquake Warning. This building is in violation of the requirements of the San Francisco Building Code regarding earthquake safety.”

Such a notice does not, necessarily, mean that the building is unsafe. What it does mean is that the owner hasn’t responded to the city’s new requirement for proof that the building meets minimal seismic standards. The signs come with no monetary penalty— yet—but there is little doubt that many landlords are going to get concerned calls from tenants this fall.

Another large chink in our armor is the fact that only around 10 percent of homeowners carry any form of earthquake insurance, a percentage that has actually declined slightly in the years since Loma Prieta. Indeed, one of the negative legacies of Loma Prieta may be the false sense of security that it has given many local building owners.

Otellini, San Francisco’s chief resilience officer, must navigate between being so alarmist that people shut down and being so Pollyanna-ish that they are lulled into irrational optimism. Overall, however, he believes that the city is in a strong position to advance its preparedness. With the economy booming and major investments being made in new buildings and office space, San Francisco is thinking about its long-term future. The often-divided Board of Supervisors has unanimously passed nine pieces of earthquake-related legislation in the last two years. And the messaging to the public, says Otellini, has moved away from a fear-based approach. “The message used to appeal to the preppers. It said, ‘You are going to be on your own for 72 hours, you’d better deal with it.’ And that’s great for some folks, but it doesn’t reach a broader audience, so the city retooled it. The message is now, ‘You’re more prepared than you think.’”

“Ok, here comes the blood,” says Nora Matulich as she applies a large dollop of viscous red makeup from my hairline to my eyebrow. We are in the back room of St. Kevin Catholic Church in Bernal Heights for the last night of a six-week Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) class, and I’ve volunteered to be a “victim” in a post-earthquake horror scene that will test the wits of a newly minted crop of emergency volunteers.

Matulich (or Gory Nory, as she’s called in this situation) has the task of making a half dozen disaster-victim volunteers appear as realistically wounded as possible. Volunteer Wanda Lee is given an ominous yet easily overlooked trickle of blood coming out of her left ear. Rose Ann Harris gets a gash above her eye. Lorrie Gallagher has put a red napkin over her right hand to indicate that it’s missing (a fake rubber hand is placed across the room). Equipped with some blan- kets and a fake leg, Gene Lee appears to have suffered an amputation at the knee. Matulich’s own pseudo-injury is the most stomach-turning and realistic: a broken radius bone protruding from her forearm.

After the makeup, we are assigned roles. Matulich will alert volunteers to a baby crying in the next room, Lee is going to scream for help at the top of his lungs, and Harris will freak out about a missing cat. After assessing my acting abilities, Doug Manguiat, the firefighter who is running this drill, tells me that I will play an unconscious victim. He points to a spot on the kitchen floor where I’m to lie down.

“What do I do again?” I ask.

“You are unconscious,” he replies. “Breathe.”

“OK,” I say, “got it.”

Manguiat gives me the safe word in case any volunteer becomes overly enthusiastic and starts chest compressions or tries to carry me out of the room. If that happens, I’m to yell out “49er!” to stop the drill. When people get panicky, Manguiat tells me, they can forget their training. As if the injuries aren’t enough of a challenge, the two rooms that the trainees will enter are strewn with broken electrical wires and clouded by smoke from a smoke machine, the confusion accentuated by an audio loop of a baby crying.

Dedicated as I am to my role, I can’t see what happens during the next five minutes—but from what I can hear, it’s mayhem. The job of the rescue volunteers is to enter the room safely, then locate each victim and assess his or her injuries. Amid the pleas for attention from the actor-victims, I can hear the NERTs talking excitedly among themselves, surveying the situation and assigning tasks. “There’s a guy over here by the fridge,” I hear one volunteer announce. I squint for a peek and see a large woman with a buzz cut and a leather jacket leaning over me. She tilts my head back and puts her ear to my mouth. As she works diligently away, I am surprised by an emotion that’s both rare and welcome—old- fashioned, unironic civic pride. Here is a diverse group of San Franciscans taking time out of their busy week to learn how to help their neighbors in their time of greatest need. This feeling of pride only slightly lessens when I hear my would-be rescuer announce to her fellow NERTs, “This guy’s not breathing. Tag him as dead.”

The NERTs, as Manguiat tells them in his debrief, make a series of mistakes. Indeed, learning from these mistakes is the point of the exercise. Manguiat declares one volunteer dead for not having noticed that a live electrical wire was touching the stainless steel countertop. Some victims, including me, were incorrectly triaged, and the volunteers failed to find a baby mannequin under a countertop.

Before the NERTs are called up one by one to receive their certificate, Battalion Chief Charlie Crane addresses the group. “Simply put, we don’t have enough resources to respond to every need after a major quake,” Crane tells the volunteers. “Within the first hour, our resources will all be in use, which means that to send resources anywhere, we’ll have to pull people and material away from another situation. We are going to need your help.”

The NERT program is one of the many city initiatives inspired by the experience of Loma Prieta—particularly by the way that volunteers pitched in with search-and-rescue that night. Assistant Deputy Chief Lombardi, who has taught many NERTs, was a college kid at USF when Loma Prieta hit. Like uncounted others, he made his way down to the Marina and began to work. During those hours, hundreds of citizens with no training helped locate victims trapped in fallen buildings, gave first aid, pulled fire hoses down the street, removed debris, and directed traffic. “It seemed like there were more volunteers pitching in than there were firefighters,” recalls Lombardi. “We learned that people really help in times of emergency.”

Over in Oakland, volunteer rescuers risked their own safety by climbing the half-collapsed Cypress structure to assist people who were trapped. Similar efforts were being made all around the Bay Area. Using survey results, researchers have calculated that more than 31,000 people in San Francisco and Santa Cruz alone participated in search-and-rescue, first aid administration, and other disaster response tasks after Loma Prieta.

Despite all that goodwill, it could have gone better. In the Marina, for example, some people didn’t know what to do, others who tried to pitch in quickly gave up—and even more would have joined the effort had they been invited or instructed to help. NERT originated with the realization that with just a little training and coordination with the fire department, citizen volunteers could make a huge impact. Some of the simplest skills could make all the difference: NERT volunteers, for instance, know where to look to turn off gas and electricity to buildings, and they can quickly train their neighbors to canvass blocks to do the same. Of course, these volunteers don’t have the skills or equipment to fight a major conflagration, but each and every one of the more than 15,000 on-call volunteers who have completed NERT training over the last 24 years may be able to stop a neighborhood-destroying fire before it starts.

The NERT program represents a sea change in our thinking about how people react to emergencies. When Loma Prieta hit, there was a pervasive misconception that people lose control during disasters. If you want a quick primer on this belief, watch the panicky extras flailing their arms and trampling each other in the 1974 movie Earthquake.

“Disasters are often portrayed as periods of social breakdown, moments when the thin veneer of civilization is torn away and people resort to their baser instincts,” says Erik Auf der Heide, a medical officer for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services who has spent years reviewing on-the-ground reports of human behavior in the wake of disaster. “The reality is that when things get really bad, people rise to the occasion and discover a resiliency that they didn’t know existed. Communities commonly develop more cohesiveness as a result of disasters.”

Studying the records of dozens of large-scale disasters, Auf der Heide discovered that it is amateurs who do a vast majority of the rescue work. He found, for instance, that 59 percent of uninjured survivors of the tornado that hit Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1979 helped other victims within minutes. After a 1980 earthquake in Italy, almost all of the trapped victims were extricated by untrained neighbors using only their bare hands and garden tools. Following the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, an estimated 1.2 million people worked to find, rescue, and give first aid to victims.

What happens after a disaster highlights basic human resiliency—and reveals the importance of what social scientists call social capital. We create social capital in parent groups, garden cooperatives, church groups, yoga classes, and shared work and living spaces—every time we gather and strengthen our networks of trust and reciprocity. San Francisco is a bastion of individualism and self-expression, but we have also woven a social fabric out of thousands of interconnected urban tribes.

Other social forces that didn’t exist at the time of Loma Prieta will also play a key role next time. Almost no one in the United States had Internet access in 1989. Cell phones were similarly rare, and smartphones didn’t exist. Today, dozens of players in the local tech economy have critical services to offer. Google, to take one key example, has a robust emergency response platform that, not surprisingly, relies on data aggregation. Within a day of a major quake, Google users in the Bay Area will be directed to a landing page devoted to the disaster, featuring an area crisis map with information like the location of shelters, gas sources, and areas where there is electrical service. It will also have a people-finder utility, allowing users to both post and request information about the location and well-being of loved ones. In addition, there will be a disaster-specific news feed and a list of organizations in need of donations to help victims.

Companies in the burgeoning sharing economy have also gotten on board the disaster-preparedness bandwagon. I talked with Molly Turner, director of civic partnerships at Airbnb, shortly after she presented her company’s new disaster assistance initiative at the White House. Following Hurricane Sandy, when Airbnb hosts offered 1,400 homes for evacuees, the company realized that it could be a conduit for a critical post-disaster resource. It is now in the midst of launching an initiative to encourage and prepare its hosts to step up after a disaster. Within a few hours of the next great quake, the company will send out automatic notices to thousands of hosts in the region, alerting them to the need for free emergency housing. “We have a community of people who are already comfortable with the idea of opening their homes to strangers on a regular basis,” says Turner. “The more people who can stay in or near their communities and jobs, the faster the community will bounce back.”

Other players in the new sharing economy are also joining up. The car-sharing service Getaround is launching a disaster assistance web portal to help people find or share vehicles. TaskRabbit has a new mobile web interface that will allow first responders to find people with specific needed skills. These new tools represent a particular Bay Area spirit that will be on display in many other ways. It is no coincidence that the region is a hotspot for social networking and the sharing economy: Both are expressions of a collaborative Bay Area ethos that was already here. Everywhere, networks of trust and reciprocity, large and small, are waiting to be put to use.

One group that will have an unexpectedly major impact after the next Big One is the tribe of Burning Man. The year of Loma Prieta, Burning Man was a small group of people who gathered one day a year on Baker Beach. It wasn’t until 1991 that the festival moved to the Black Rock Desert, attracting just 250 adventurous souls that year. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people, most from the Bay Area, have spent days, often weeks, living off the grid on the unforgiving alkaline playa. True, they have gone there to whoop it up and make wild art, but in the process they’ve learned some critical lessons about living without buildings, electricity, nearby stores, and, at times, reliable waste removal.

In garages and basements across the Bay Area, burners have stowed portable electrical generators, shade structures, five-gallon buckets for makeshift toilets, walkie-talkies, cooking stoves, first aid kits, sledgehammers, rope, and tarps by the acre. All that stuff, gathered by burners to survive the Black Rock Desert, is the very same equipment that we’ll need to help the hundreds of thousands of people left homeless after the next major quake.

There is little doubt that San Franciscans will come together to help each other in the aftermath of the next big quake. If it weren’t for the death and destruction, one might even look forward to this expression of social solidarity—a time when we all have a shared purpose. Unlike our normal, day- to-day lives, everything will suddenly be tactile, urgent, and consequential. After the next big quake, the social fabric will not only hold but tighten, at least for a time. Our lives, and the life of the city, will irrevocably change course, testing our character both as individuals and as a community. It may break us, but, given the knowledge that we’ve put to use and what we now know about human behavior after such events, there’s reason to hope that our greatest civic calamity will also be our finest hour.

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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