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What's the Worst That Could Happen?

Adam L. Brinklow | September 25, 2014 | Lifestyle Story City Life

Editor's Note: This is one 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.

1. What if the phones go out? What if we’re knocked back to the dark ages forever?
The good news is, you probably won’t lose reception— at least not right away: Cell service relies on municipal power, but most sites have backup batteries, and many even have backup-to-the-backup generators. “Even during Hurricane Katrina, we had cell service for about 12 hours,” says Jeff Lusk, Director of Mitigation at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). That said, don’t make a lot of calls. You’ll just tie things up for people trying to dial 911. “A network is like a freeway: You build it with as many lanes as you think you’ll need most days, not enough so that everyone can get on at once,” says Verizon spokeswoman Heidi Flato. Set up a meeting spot with loved ones—a park, say, or an intersection—in advance of an earthquake and make your way there once it’s safe enough. Otherwise, rely on text messages and emails, which use less bandwidth than voice calls, or call a person outside the Bay Area and ask him or her to relay messages to whomever you’re trying to reach. The Red Cross “Safe and Well” site allows people to register as alive, providing peace of mind to families.

2. What if i’m trapped in my house? Or a parking garage? Or the john?
As much as nobody wants to hear it, if you’re not about to bleed out right that second, it’s better to remain where you are rather than running into the street, where downed power lines and falling debris can be dangerous well after the shaking stops. Check walls for heat, sniff for gas or smoke, and look at ceilings, walls, and floors for cracks or other troubling signs. If you’re clear, hunker down. (On the bright side, this is a good time to get some real thinking done.) In the immediate aftermath of a major quake, up to 15,000 trained neighborhood emergency response team (NERT) volunteers will canvass the city looking for damaged buildings and injured people. get their attention, but not by screaming, which will exhaust you pretty fast. Instead, find some other way to make noise—by knocking on things or playing music from any electronic device that still has juice, for example. The sound of metal striking metal carries the farthest, and exterior walls are, obviously, best for banging on. if you happen to have one, a whistle is the perfect way to call for help: it takes less out of you than screaming, and it’s ob-noxious enough that nobody could possibly miss it.

3. What if the power goes out?
Short answer: it almost definitely will—Napa’s 6.0 surprise, for example, put power on the fritz for some 70,000 people. In the immediate aftermath of a quake, don’t light candles unless you fancy an explosion on top of all your other problems—but only turn off the gas if you smell a leak or the building is so badly damaged that you can’t be sure, because only the utility company can turn it back on again, and chances are that it’ll have other problems. In the longer term, getting the grid up and running again will be no easy task—PG&E estimates that rebuilding after a 1906-style Big One would require tens of thousands of repairs and up to 7,000 additional personnel. The rosy scenario sees power up and running to 80 percent of san Franciscans after 72 hours or so, but even 30 days later, PG&E employees could still be relighting pilot lights. Fortunately, all major infrastructure sites—hospitals, fire stations, airports, Bart stations—have backup generators. You may have to make do with flashlights for up to a week (which reminds us: stock up on batteries), but the city’s most important hotspots will get by.

4. What if the bridges fall down? What if i’m stuck on one?
Images of the ’89 bridge collapse notwithstanding, “bridges are one of the best places to be in an earthquake,” says William Ibbs, a UC Berkeley professor of engineering who holds a Phd in construction risk. “Steel is stronger than wood and more flexible than concrete.” Ibbs praises Caltrans for having, over the last 20 years, shored up not only the Bay Bridge but also lesser-trafficked spans like the Richmond and Benicia-Martinez Bridges. Knocking out a modern bridge, he says, would take a catastrophe of the sort that only comes along once every 200 years or so. And Caltrans, for its part, is quite adamant that the Bay Bridge will survive a major quake. “Any man-made structure can be damaged,” says spokeswoman Leah Robinson-Leach, “but the Bridge will be usable to one degree or another.” in the event of a quake, commuters should stay put and wait either for the all-clear to keep driving or for rescue crews to arrive. Former Oakland police officer Anthony Hare, who did relief work in the aftermath of Loma Prieta, says that while it’s best to follow instructions, you should also heed your common sense. “Pay attention to the spread of flames and the flow of traffic.” In the unlikely event that the bridges do fail, backup plans include running extra ferry service and air-taxiing supplies in until traffic flows again.

5. What if i’m on BART?
BART’s early warning system is designed to detect a temblor a few seconds before the rest of us and automatically slow trains to 26 miles per hour, after which operators receive a radio instruction to come to a stop—except, that is, in the Transbay Tube (which, by the way, was just retrofitted with steel plates to mitigate the worst-case scenario of flooding). “We don’t want passengers feeling trapped down there,” explains Bart representative Alicia Trost. Once the train has stopped, the operator will come through to assess the situation, and then it’s time for the waiting game as the tracks are checked for damage. Unless something is actively on fire, don’t leave the train—BART tunnels are dark, and that third rail can be deadly. If all goes as planned, a rescue train will eventually arrive, link up to the stopped train, and then zoom back to safety. It’s OK to kiss the platform when you get there.

6. What if i’m in labor? Having a heart attack? In need of medication right away? First, avoid self-diagnosing: ask the first person you encounter to check you out. If your phone works, you can download a first aid app from the Red Cross (or, better yet, download it right now—we’ll wait) to walk you through immediate treatment. If you’re suffering something more serious than cuts and bruises, now’s the time to completely disregard the stay-put dictum. “If you even think you’re having an emergency and you’re able to move, you should seek help,” says Kristin Hogan of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management. “We don’t want people needlessly clogging the roads, but you should feel empowered to find assistance.” If you are too injured to move, are trapped in your house, or can’t get to a hospital because the roads are damaged, you may just have to sit tight and wait for help to find you. NERT volunteers can call in reports of major injury even if 911 is down, and once a patient reaches the hospital, serious injuries are given priority: “A heart attack needs immediate care, a broken leg might not. But it all depends,” says Lann Wilder, San Francisco General’s Director of Emergency Management. And wherever you are, look out for the people around you: “Watch for anyone who is pale and sweaty, dizzy, confused, or taking over 30 breaths per minute,” says the San Francisco Fire Department’s Lieutenant Erica Arteseros, head of the NERT program. “Those are the signs of shock.”

7. What if i’m on a plane that can’t land because of quake damage?
Loma Prieta knocked both SFO and Oakland International Airport briefly out of commission, leaving some folks literally up in the air. But every commercial airline pilot has a list of alternate landing sites, and the Federal Aviation Administration requires all flights to have enough fuel to make it to an alternate location with 45 minutes’ worth of fuel to spare. Meanwhile, SFO has 5 to 10 airfield operations officers on duty at any given time to assess runway conditions. And though being stranded at SFO may be the only thing scarier than an earthquake, an airport is perhaps one of the best places to end up. A major airport operates almost like a small city unto itself, with fire, police, and medical responders already onsite, along with engineers, electricians, and other maintenance staff.

8. What if there’s an enormous fire like in 1906?
As all good amateur san Francisco historians know, the 1906 earthquake wasn’t the real issue—it was just the fuse for a devastating fire that was exacerbated by a full-scale failure of the water delivery system. Well, fool us once, shame on you, but these days the city has 200 emergency cisterns sloshing with emergency firefighting H2O at all times. If you do see smoke, try to get upwind of it, and remember that “fire breaks”—wide streets such as Van Ness Avenue—are built into the city layout. Keep them between you and the hotspot.

9. What if there’s a tsunami?
A tsunami has never been recorded in the Bay Area, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. Still, San Francisco’s entire coastal perimeter is technically considered an inundation zone. Another complication: a tsunami could come from the Bay instead of the ocean—if a quake were to push a huge amount of water through the Golden Gate, it could hit us as it washed back out, in what’s called a seiche. If you’re worried about such things, high ground is the order of the day, and the higher the better. Note that the wave that first hits a tsunami zone might look huge and terrifying, but in fact it’s often just a precursor to an even larger wave right behind it—so don’t go poking around low ground until you’re sure the whole thing is over.

10. What if i’m stuck far away from my house or family? Again, it’s best to hunker down wherever you are—even if you’re out of town. Swamping the roads will only make things worse. “We’re looking at total traffic stoppage in an earthuake,” says the SFFD’s Arteseros. “We can’t stop people from driving around and looking for loved ones, but it’ll probably cause more problems than it solves.”

11. What if the hospitals are overrun? What if they run out of supplies? What if they collapse?
Wilder says that S.F. General “anticipates a large surge of patients,” but notes that even in a major disaster, the majority of injuries are relatively minor, making it unlikely that hospitals will be completely inundated. S.F. General has a 96-hour supply of food, water, fuel, medicine, and blood for staff and patients—more than enough to last until outside emergency crews are expected to arrive. Beyond that, the city has planned for a vast network of pop-up hospitals (not the official term) to treat the masses (call 311 or monitor AM/FM radio for announcements about locations). If S.F. General’s building itself were the first casualty, the whole operation would decamp to military-style tents set up at a nearby location, MASH-style. Shock trauma units from the Navy and the Marines would arrive after a few days, and staff and patients would move to ships in the bay.

12. What if there’s looting or mass violence?
Although most Americans still remember vivid reports of lawlessness in post-Katrina New Orleans, statistics show that crime actually tends to go down after a natural disaster. Besides, a massive catastrophe is “an all-hands-on-deck situation” for law enforcement, according to Senior Sheriff’s Deputy Enrique Luquin, so don’t expect the city to transform into thunderdome overnight. If you’re really worried, do what communities do best: Pull together. Look for neighbors or other people you know, and stick with one another until things return to (relative) working order. A group of 15 rarely gets mugged, even in the worst of times.

13. What if there’s no water?
Experts say that you should have at least three gallons of water per person (72 hours’ worth) stored in an accessible place in case of emergency. But, let’s face it, you probably don’t. Fortunately, the California Public Utilities Commission has invested in redundant pipelines intended to reroute water around damaged areas. Of course, that won’t help if your faucets and local mains are damaged—an estimated 130 lines broke in the five days after the Napa Quake, leaving about 600 customers without water. In cases like that, the CPUC will deliver water to affected areas via tanker trucks and neighborhood repositories. This part is important: No matter how thirsty you get, don’t open a hydrant. For starters, that water isn’t always potable. Furthermore, it’s just about the least helpful thing you can do for the city at large because it lowers water pressure in the entire system. If you’re truly desperate, the water trapped in the back of your toilet tank or water heater is drinkable—a few seconds of steady boiling is all it takes to sterilize it. Alternatively, eight drops of bleach will make a gallon of water safe to drink, and about nine hours in the sun will kill most harmful bacteria in an 18-ounce water bottle. Puddle water might look nasty, but if subjected to any of these methods, it’s usually safe enough. If you don’t appreciate the gritty texture, straining it through a shirt or a rag will remove most of the chunky stuff. Experts are insistent that you not try to drink your pee. (You’d be surprised by how many people need to be told.)

14. What about food? I’m hungry just thinking about it.
Disaster really does seem to bring out the best in people. “After Loma Prieta, people who didn’t know each other fed the entire neighborhood,” says Patsy Gasca, Disaster Program Manager for the Santa Cruz County American Red Cross. Moreover, says FEMA’s Lusk, “in San Francisco we have a large hospitality industry, and we’re used to a large tourist population. I’d head to those facilities that feed and house large numbers of people and trust in the sense of camaraderie that follows such an event.” If you’re not comfortable relying on the brotherhood of man, keep in mind that the Red Cross’s second priority after setting up shelters is getting food to the masses. And if all else fails, you can live by your wits. “After the 1906 quake, Italian immigrants recognized a staple foodstuff from their homeland growing all over the city: Dandelions,” says lumberjack turned wilderness survival trainer (!) Mark Weinert. “That kept them going.” Red clover is also quite tasty, and edible sweet fennel and manzanita berries sprout around the Bay Area. Of course, don’t go foraging unless you’re really at death’s door. No earthquake is improved by a bellyful of poison.

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco magazine

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