San Francisco Quake Could Be Worse Than Katrina

If a massive earthquake ever hits the city of San Francisco, the resulting disaster could be even worse than the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans.

The picturesque California city could be faced with the task of evacuating as many as 2 million people by sea if an earthquake buckled roads and brought down buildings and bridges.

"If I don't have a Bay Bridge and a Golden Gate Bridge, we're in essence an island," said the city's mayor, Gavin Newsom.

A serious earthquake could break gas lines, leading to massive fires. There might be no way to fight the fires if water lines were also broken.

Even worse, most of the city's police and firefighters live outside the city and would not be able to get in over broken bridges. Emergency communications would have to come from a system of quake-proof World War II sirens situated around the city.

Newsom says Katrina radically changed his approach to disaster preparedness. "I'm not thinking just outside the box. We're blowing up the box," he said.

Newsom's car can function as a mobile command center, complete with all emergency communication equipment. City Hall sits on rollers designed to withstand an earthquake. And in the event of a quake, Newsom says, civil servants would be pressed into a dual role.

"We have 30,000 city employees, all of them can be conscripted in the context of an emergency," he said. "We've reminded all our employees they have an obligation -- a real obligation -- to participate in disaster scenario plans and to participate in evacuation plans."

Unfinished Business

In October 1989, San Francisco received a hint of what could come when a magnitude 7.1 tremor hit 60 miles south of the city, leaving 4,000 injured and 63 dead. Part of a freeway collapsed, and property damage totaled $6 billion.

Mary Lou Zoback, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, says some of the problems that existed in 1989 still exist today.

"Most of the building stock in San Francisco, particularly the residential housing, was built prior to ... 1960," she said. "Something like 75 percent of it."

Those buildings are less resilient than newer structures and likely to be severely damaged or destroyed in the event of a major earthquake.

If the buildings are destroyed, their gas and water lines could also be ruptured, making the likelihood of a fire "very substantial," Zoback said.

Experts say many critical structures in the city may also not have been adequately upgraded to withstand earthquakes, including:

  • the city's biggest hospital, San Francisco General, where many of the injured would be taken;

  • the Bay Bridge connecting Oakland and San Francisco;

  • and nearly a third of the city's schools.

Newsom concedes: "Everything needs to be reviewed." He noted that when the city suffered an electrical explosion in August, one of the city's mobile command centers was working with maps from 1985.

"Frankly, a lot of us have gotten our eye off the ball and focused almost exclusively on man-made disasters, and the lexicon of homeland security," Newsom said

"We've got a lot of work to do in this country on that but we've also got to get back to the basics ... that means looking at Mother Nature -- be it tornadoes and hurricanes, [and] obviously to the issues of earthquakes," Newsom said.

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