Thursday, October 15, 2009

20 Years After Loma Prieta Earthquake, Is San Francisco Prepared For 'The Big One?'

On October 17, 1989, the Greater Bay Area Was Slammed By Its Strongest Tremor Since 1906 -- a 6.9-Magnitude Shaker That Killed 63 People, Injured Over 3,700 Others and Wreaked Over $6 Billion in Damage; Two Decades Later, Many Public Structures have Been Braced, But Most Homes Remain Vulnerable

The Cypress Structure collapse

Officials of the California Department of Transportation survey the wreckage of the double-decked Cypress Freeway in Oakland on October 20, 1989, three days after a 6.9-magnitude earthquake -- the strongest since 1906 -- struck the San Francisco Bay Area during the height of the evening commute, causing the upper deck of the freeway -- as well as a section of the landmark Bay Bridge -- to collapse. Dozens of cars on the lower deck of the freeway were crushed, killing 42 people and injuring scores of others. Twenty years later, a newly-released survey found that while many public structures have bee retrofitted to withstand the next major quake, thousands of private homes remain highly vulnerable. (Archive photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EDT Thursday, October 15, 2009)

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the San Francisco Bay Area's worst natural disaster since the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906: The Loma Prieta Earthquake, which killed 69 people and caused over $6 billion in damage. At the time, I was a copy editor for a San Francisco newspaper and lived across the bay in Berkeley. I was working later than usual when the quake struck at 5:04 p.m., right at the height of the evening commute. I consider myself lucky to be alive, for had I not had to work late that day -- and had there not been 60,000-plus fans at Candlestick Park for Game 3 of the 1989 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A's -- the number of fatalities from the collapse of part of the Bay Bridge and of the Cypress Freeway in Oakland would have been much greater. In this special commemorative report, we take a look back at the disaster and look ahead to see what is being done to prepare for the next one.


It was a warm autumn evening on October 17, 1989, a Tuesday. More than 60,000 die-hard baseball fans packed into Candlestick Park in San Francisco for Game 3 of the "Battle of the Bay" World Series between the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants. Hundreds of thousands of commuters were on their way home from work -- many with their car radios tuned in to the pre-game show.

Millions more throughout the Bay Area and across the country had turned on their TVs to watch ABC's coverage of the game. It was just past five o'clock -- eight o'clock on the East Coast -- as ABC announcers Al Michaels and Tim McCarver were discussing highlights of Games 1 and 2 in Oakland, both of which were won by the A's.

Suddenly, just after the Candlestick scoreboard clock clicked to 5:04 p.m., the announcers' booth -- along with the entire stadium -- began shaking violently. Viewers, who were watching a video of the previous game, saw the picture begin to flicker off and on. Many in the stadium crowd began to scream. Michaels then shouted, "I'll tell you what, folks, we're having an earth--"


"--Quake!" never made it on the air. The power went out, cutting off ABC's live feed before Michaels could finish his sentence.


The greater San Francisco Bay Area had just been hit by a tsunami of roiling soil and rock generated by a gargantuan explosion 11 miles underground -- as if seven 100-megaton thermonuclear bombs had gone off simultaneously -- some 70 miles to the south at Loma Prieta in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

By the time the shaking stopped some 15 terrifying seconds later, a huge swath of Northern California from the Monterey Bay north to Sacramento and from the Pacific Coast east to Nevada had been turned -- both figuratively and literally -- upside down.

Sixty-three people were killed and more than 3,700 others were injured in the quake, which measured 6.9 on the Richter scale and was the most powerful temblor to strike the Bay Area since the Great Earthquake of 1906, which reduced all of downtown San Francisco to a pile of burning rubble.

Forty-two of those 63 deaths occurred in Oakland, when the upper deck of the double-decked Cypress Freeway collapsed onto the lower deck, crushing dozens of vehicles at the height of the homebound commute. The quake also caused a section of the inbound upper deck of the famed Bay Bridge to collapse onto the outbound lower deck. Several cars on the upper deck plunged into the gap, killing at least one driver and injuring a dozen others.

Were it not for the World Series game at Candlestick Park, traffic would have been much heavier on both the Bay Bridge and the Cypress Freeway and the death toll would certainly have been much higher.

Television viewers across the country soon got to watch an eerie repeat of history unfold live, as an entire block of the city's swanky Marina District burned to the ground as a result of ruptured natural-gas mains, but unlike the 1906 disaster, the local utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric, was able to quickly shut off the gas and the water mains stayed intact, enabling a small army of firefighters and volunteers to prevent the blaze from spreading.

Nevertheless, for the next 18 to 24 hours after the quake struck, all of San Francisco and a huge swath of the greater Bay Area had to live without electricity, as the temblor knocked out much of PG&E's power distribution network, forcing the Bay Area Rapid Transit system to shut down and most of the area's hospitals, police and fire stations and radio and TV stations to fire up their emergency generators.

Yet throughout the disaster, the Bay Area dis not descend into total chaos. By the millions, residents rallied to rescue the trapped and injured, comfort the bereaved who lost loved ones and bring the region back to its feet.

Ten days after the quake, the World Series resumed at Candlestick Park, with the 62,000 fans paying tribute to the region's police officers, firefighters, paramedics and other first-responders with a five-minute standing ovation in an emotional pregame ceremony that included a moment of silence for the 63 people who lost their lives in the temblor, followed by the singing en masse of "San Francisco," the song immortalized in the 1936 film about the 1906 disaster.

And by the way, the A's beat the Giants to complete a four-game sweep of the Series.


Two decades later, a lot has changed in and around San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area. Many schools, highways and other public buildings have been retrofitted to withstand another major quake of up to 8 on the Richter scale.

Other structures -- including the Embarcadero Freeway along the San Francisco waterfront and the Central Freeway which cut into the city's Hayes Valley neighborhood -- were torn down after structural engineers found they were unsafe. The destroyed Cypress Freeway in Oakland is now a broad, tree-lined boulevard renamed in honor of former South African President Nelson Mandela.

But thousands of private homes and apartment buildings -- particularly those built of unreinforced brick and masonry -- remain vulnerable. Scientists warn that there is a more than 60 percent probability of a major earthquake of magnitude 7 or greater striking the region in the next 30 years.

Some of the most vulnerable buildings -- built decades before state building codes were upgraded for greater seismic safety in the 1970s -- are located in San Francisco's densely populated Chinatown and Tenderloin neighborhoods. Others, located in the affluent Marina District and the bohemian South of Market area, are built on landfill reclaimed from the bay that can liquefy during a major quake, causing buildings to collapse.

If those buildings are not retrofitted, hundreds of residents in those areas could be killed and thousands more displaced if the long-dreaded "big one" hits -- a quake equal to or greater than the 1906 shaker, geologists warn.


Hospitals in the region remain at high risk, having fallen behind state-imposed deadlines to retrofit their buildings because of the high cost. In San Francisco proper, only now are hospitals undergoing seismic upgrades, with most of the work not expected to be completed until 2015, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The 1906 earthquake struck before the Richter scale was invented, but is estimated to have been a magnitude 7.9 (For decades, it was believed that the monster temblor was an 8.3, but in a report released on the 100th anniversary of the disaster in 2006, the U.S. Geological Survey re-examined the amount of slippage on the San Andreas Fault and recalculated the earthquake at 7.9).

"We have been retrofitting public infrastructure, but in the Bay Area and California, we have done a miserable job of retrofitting where we live," Peter Yanev, a seismic engineer and author who sits on engineering advisory councils at the University of California at Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the Chronicle. "In San Francisco, there are hundreds and hundreds of buildings that are not retrofitted, and they are a risk to people's lives."


The region is streaked by at least four major earthquake faults: The 1,700-mile San Andreas -- the most famous and feared fault in California -- on which the Loma Prieta quake was centered; the Hayward Fault, on the east shore of San Francisco Bay, along which lie the densely populated cities of Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond and Hayward; the Calaveras Fault, which runs through the hills between the Bay Area and the Central Valley; and the Rogers Creek Fault, which is really a northern extension of the Hayward, located north of San Pablo Bay.

There are at least a half-dozen smaller faults that bisect the Bay Area as well. Next to the San Andreas, the Hayward Fault poses the greatest risk of generating a major quake -- and causing the greatest amount of death and destruction. Not only does the fault run through Oakland and Berkeley, but the University of California's 60,000-seat football stadium in Berkeley lies directly on the fault and the BART system's Concord Tunnel cuts directly through it.

As the Bay Area prepared to mark Saturday's anniversary of the Loma Prieta quake, its residents received a another reminder of just how unstable the ground beneath them is: a 3.7-magnitude earthquake struck just south of the San Francisco suburb of Pleasanton shortly before 8:30 p.m. Tuesday night, followed by two smaller temblors in the same area.

The U.S. Geological Survey reported that the first quake was centered three miles south of Pleasanton. It was reported as having a relatively shallow depth of five miles.

About two hours later, two smaller earthquakes struck, each a magnitude 2.1 on the Richter scale. The first, at 11:18 p.m., had a depth of about 5.2 miles and was centered about five miles north-northeast of the town of Sunol. The second, at 11:27 p.m., had a depth of about 4.3 miles and was centered about eight miles south-southeast of Sunol.

There were no reports of injuries or damage.

# # #

Volume IV, Number 78
Copyright 2009,Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


Sphere: Related Content

Monday, October 12, 2009

Letter From the Editor: Nobel Prize to Obama Is Really a Slap in Bush's Face

Even the President -- Caught Completely By Surprise -- Admits That He Doesn't Feel That He Deserves to Receive the Peace Prize After Less Than Ten Months in Office, But Nobel Committee's Decision Shows How Deeply the World Holds Obama's Predecessor in Contempt

President Obama passes by a battered United Nations flag on his way to addressing the General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York on September 23. The flag had flown over the UN's bombed-out Iraq headquarters in Baghdad. On Friday, the nation, the world -- and even the president himself -- were stunned by the news that he won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, even though Obama has been in office for barely ten months. The five-member Nobel Peace Prize Committee in Oslo, Norway cited Obama for "giving the world hope for a better future" with his work for peace and calls to reduce the global stockpile of nuclear weapons. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EDT Monday, October 12, 2009)


"What do we do now?"

That was the question that Bill McKay, the Democratic nominee for a U.S. Senate seat in California, asked his campaign manager on election night in the closing scene of the 1972 motion picture "The Candidate."

The Bobby Kennedy-like McKay (played by Robert Redford) had just been projected the winner of a hard-fought campaign against an entrenched, Barry Goldwater-like Republican incumbent Senator Crocker Jarmon (Played by Don Porter), a campaign that McKay had not expected to win. His victory thus caught him by surprise.

I thought a lot about that final scene from the film, and particularly Redford's closing line, as the news had sunk in on Friday that President Obama had won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. Like most of the world -- and even the president himself -- my immediate reaction was one of disbelief.


How could the Oslo, Norway-based Nobel Peace Prize Committee award the world's most prestigious honor to a man who had been in office as president of the United States for just under ten months -- and facing a rapidly deteriorating military situation in Afghanistan?

It is difficult to imagine Obama not experiencing his own "What do we do now?" moment upon receiving the news. He, after all, is facing the most difficult foreign-policy decision that any president can face -- one that, indeed, could make or break his presidency. On top of that, Obama is also confronted with seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At a time when the Obama administration is conducting a review of U.s. strategy in the eight-year-old conflict against al-Qaida and its Taliban allies -- and coming under under pressure from military leaders -- as well as from his Republican critics -- to send as many as 40,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan -- winning the peace prize now certainly appears awkward.

What impact will it have on Obama's ability to deal with Iraq and Afghanistan and the Mideast? We don't know. Only time holds the answer to that question. But why now?


Even the president himself, caught off-guard by the news, was initially in disbelief. As he told reporters at a hastily-called news briefing at the White House Rose Garden on Friday, Obama acknowledged that "this is not how I expected to wake up this morning."

Admitting that he was "surprised" that he had been chosen to receive the prize, the president said that "To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who've been honored by this prize -- men and women who've inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace."

But Obama also acknowledged "this prize reflects the kind of world that those men and women, and all Americans, want to build -- a world that gives life to the promise of our founding documents. And I know that throughout history, the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honor specific achievement; it's also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes."

To that end, the president said that he would accept the award in Oslo on December 10 "as a call to action -- a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century." He said later that he will donate to charity the $1.4 million that accompanies the prize.


Anyone who has read The 'Skeeter Bites Report over the past 18 months knows that its editor and publisher is a staunch supporter of Obama. I endorsed him for the Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton in February of last year. I voted for him in November.

I have relentlessly gone after the more outrageous of his critics, most notably the whacked-out "birthers," whose relentless, yet futile campaign to remove Obama from office with false, unprovable claims that he is a foreigner constitutionally ineligible to be president was -- and is -- clearly motivated by racist and misplaced Islamophobic animus against him.

But for once, I find myself in agreement with the president's critics on this one. I do believe that the Nobel Prize Committee was premature to award the Peace Prize to Obama now, in the face of what is very likely to be an escalation of the war in Afghanistan.

Not that I oppose the conflict against al-Qaida and the Taliban; quite the contrary, Obana was right all along when he said on the campaign trail that the war in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein was a massive distraction by the Bush administration away from the real war on terror in Afghanistan. George W. Bush squandered a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to truly unite the nation and the world against the threat of global terrorism waged by al-Qaida.

Indeed, it has to be said that by awarding the Peace Prize to Obama, the Nobel Committee has, for the fourth time since 2002, heaped a pile of cow manure on Bush. Its decision was only the latest expression of the world's deep-seated contempt for the former president.


And who can blame them? Bush turned up his nose at the world by deciding to go to war against Saddam Hussein based on flimsy claims that Iraq was building up a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that he will probably never live down the day he presented to the UN Security Council what turned out to be phony evidence of Iraqi WMDs.

Result: the Nobel Committee awarded the 2002 peace prize to former President Jimmy Carter, a sharp critic of Bush's propaganda campaign leading to the Iraq War, and the 2005 Peace Prize to the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, headed by Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, that rejected Bush's claims that Iraq possessed a WMD stockpile.

Two years later, the Nobel Committee stuck it to Bush again when it awarded the 2007 Peace Prize to former Vice President Al Gore and the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for spreading the word about global warming. Bush defied the world on the growing threat of climate change when he refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions -- making the U.S. the lone holdout against the agreement.

Now comes the 2009 Peace Prize to Obama. I'm a strong supporter of this president, but I'm not so naive to believe that the Nobel Committee wasn't motivated by a desire to snap the cat-o'-nine-tails across Bush's backside one last time; it's hardly a secret that Obama's number-one foreign policy priority in the nine months he's been in office has been to repair much of the damage to America's relations with the rest of the world that Bush wreaked during his eight years in the White House.

Nevertheless, Afghanistan has a very real potential to destroy Obama's presidency just as Vietnam destroyed Lyndon Johnson's. So far, the president has acted very deliberately, determined not to repeat the mistakes of past presidents.

Congratulations, Mr. President, and Good Luck -- You're going to really need it.

Skeeter Sanders
Editor& Publisher
The 'Skeeter Bites Report

# # #

Volume IV, Number 77
Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


Sphere: Related Content