Before a storm sank New Orleans and a pair of Boeing 767s gored the Twin Towers, officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) drew up a list. It escaped notice in the months of second-guessing after the September 11 attacks but took on an air of prophecy within hours of Hurricane Katrina's landfall. There were three disasters, fema managers concluded at an August 2001 training session, that Americans should beware above all others: a terrorist attack on New York City, a hurricane in New Orleans, and an earthquake near San Francisco. Four years later, it's two down, one to go.
San Franciscans were probably the least surprised of anyone to show up on FEMA's list. Their city has always been a disaster-prone place. Just east of the city lies a patchwork of improvised levees, guarding the country's highest urban flood risk, the San Joaquin River delta. Almost every summer, the winds spread wildfires across hillsides baked dry by long, sunny days. Tectonic faults run the length of California, holding the Bay Area, from the office parks of Silicon Valley to the ranches and mansions of Marin, between seismic parentheses. When a strong tremor hit the region in 1989, injuring nearly 4,000 people, city officials concluded they got off easy. (A World Series game between Oakland and San Francisco was about to start, so the streets were empty- everyone was in front of a television.)
But it would be wrong to dismiss FEMA's prediction as just the latest warning for a region that gets plenty of them. As furious recriminations pour out of New Orleans, it is too easy to imagine the Bay Area facing a similar fate. California's well-tested first responders may be better prepared than their Louisiana colleagues. But California developers are racing to build up similarly high-risk land; cash-strapped city and state officials are making similar gambles that they can put off investing in preventive engineering for more immediate, or more popular, concerns; and, in the event of a catastrophe, the region's poor will bear a similarly disproportionate share of the pain, just as in New Orleans. Despite cycles of interest in disaster-planning and, at times, great progress, San Francisco will be unprepared if an earthquake makes FEMA's forecasting record three-for-three anytime soon. At the very least, Katrina ought to inspire a season of intense focus on the gravest threats to the city's residents. Even if it fails to last, it could do a lot of long-term good.
California's tech industry may have introduced the nation to "irrational exuberance" in the 1990s, but the state has been operating with a similar mindset since its earliest days. Southern California sprouted up all at once, when a brutal fare war between competing railroads dropped the price of a ticket between the Midwest and the coast from $100 to $1. Word of a few gold nuggets near San Francisco turned an encampment of 400 into a port community of 35,000 in two years. Towns were built fast and cheap. Many San Francisco developers balked at conquering the city's steep hillsides and instead dumped ton upon ton of dirt into the bay, building their way out to sea on soft, volatile earth. After the worst earthquake in U.S. history leveled much of the city in 1906-shaking it to pieces, then unleashing a fire that burned it to its foundations-builders put it back together faster and cheaper.
They didn't know any better. Earthquakes were still literal acts of God as much as figurative ones. (The planet's slipping, grinding tectonic plates were not discovered until the 1960s.) Over time, engineers figured out that a flexible building, bolted to its foundation, would hold up better than a heavy, rigid one. They also saw that, for the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, most of San Francisco had been built wrong. In the 1970s, the city established strict codes for new construction, fiddling with them through the '80s and '90s as the science of building got better. It even required particularly vulnerable brick structures to get special retrofits in order to keep them from exploding out during a hard shake. Most of the landscape, though, remained as it was: liable, if not to collapse, then to irreparable damage, were another earthquake like the one in 1906 to hit.
With their vulnerability so evident, San Franciscans have had no choice but to pay attention to disaster response-but there's disagreement on how well city and state officials have done. A San Francisco civil grand jury report in 2003 declared the readiness of first responders "a catastrophe." The report claimed that city agencies were updating their emergency plans without revising the versions they distributed to other agencies and the public; jurors found, disturbingly, that some agencies were writing intentionally vague guidelines to help them avoid lawsuits in case first responders deviated from them during a crisis. But Lucien Canton, the city's director of emergency services at the time, dismissed just about every criticism. "It is not unusually [sic] for plans to contain small errors or be several years old," he replied. When the report charged that "[d]epartment personnel are not adequately informed" of revisions to the city's emergency plan, Canton shot back, "Adequate is a subjective term that varies with the user."
When Gavin Newsom was elected mayor two years ago, he replaced Canton with a former chief of police (who had to be fired when he was arrested during a raucous public argument with his son over an earlier incident in which the son, also a police officer, got drunk and stole some fajitas). Newsom then baffled many critics by appointing a former city supervisor, Annemarie Conroy, who had no emergency-management experience but whose father once held the same job. Newsom, though, has made emergency planning visible in a way his predecessor, Willie Brown, did not (he even kicked off his term with a meeting on emergency preparedness). And his new disaster boss has won over many doubters, hiring an ex-fire chief as her deputy and adopting a number of the grand jury's recommendations. Still, San Francisco's pricey real-estate market has forced most of the city's police, fire, and emergency workers to live outside the city, in many cases across a bridge that is vulnerable to collapse. And, when a tsunami alert crawled across area television screens a few months ago, Conroy's office received the official warning an hour later-via teletype.
"Even for first responders, the biggest problems could stem more from faulty engineering than faulty emergency plans." Of course, while preparing for a disaster's aftermath is good, avoiding it altogether, or at least minimizing losses, is better. In New Orleans, this would have meant strengthening the levees; in San Francisco, it means hardening flawed buildings, bridges, and highways so they hold together during the ten or 15 seconds of tremors that can launch cars straight into the air and make skyscrapers twist and sway like tall grass. It is these preparations-costlier than revising phone trees or drawing up evacuation routes-that would save the most lives in an earthquake. But, despite billions of dollars in public and private investment, the Bay Area remains troublingly insecure. In 2000, San Francisco's building department commissioned an extensive study from the Applied Technology Council, a nonprofit engineering consultancy. After a long delay, a final report is scheduled to be released to the public later this year. It will compile an exacting profile of San Francisco's privately owned built environment and then run the model through four credible earthquake scenarios- from a 6.9 tremor along the East Bay's Hayward fault to the infamous Big One, a 7.9 shake along the coastal San Andreas fault comparable to the one that destroyed San Francisco in 1906-adding up costs and casualties by neighborhood.
A late draft of the report describes Katrina-like devastation or worse: anywhere from 2,674 injured, 114 killed, and more than 30,000 displaced in a Hayward quake to 18,642 injured, 1,224 killed, and more than 320,000 displaced in the worst possible San Andreas rupture. That is for San Francisco alone. The report's best-case scenario puts the city's economic losses to homes and businesses at more than $12 billion; at worst, nearly $40 billion. Those figures will climb after public damage (from bridges to highways) and potentially catastrophic fire damage are taken into account. Oakland will likely be in worse shape; there, softer soil, greater poverty, and a larger number of unreinforced brick and concrete buildings make the city far more vulnerable to a severe quake. Nearby Berkeley has made significant gains with an innovative tax incentive that encourages home buyers to order up seismic improvements, but it shares Oakland's natural disadvantages. And any disruption to San Jose's hive of technology firms would have economic repercussions for the entire country.
Engineers agree that most casualties will occur in just two types of buildings: soft-story housing, where several floors of apartments are lofted over garage space, and large brick or concrete structures. But owners of large concrete and soft-story structures, many of which contain low- and moderate- income housing, are left to make improvements at their discretion. Financially, most are better off doing nothing. These buildings will end up condemned after any serious earthquake regardless of safety enhancements; retrofits will simply make them less likely to crush people inside.
Even for first responders, the biggest problems could stem more from faulty engineering than faulty emergency plans. The 1994 earthquake in Northridge exposed many of the state's hospitals as dangerously vulnerable to structural failure. In response, the state Assembly passed a law in 2000 requiring all hospitals to be earthquake-proof, but the costs were so high (an estimated $24 billion) that legislators allowed them 30 years to comply. In the meantime, "How would we prevent a large number of injuries from turning into fatalities?" asks Richard Andrews, a private consultant and longtime director of California's Office of Emergency Services.
Perhaps the greatest symbol of California's structural shortcomings is the Bay Bridge, which lost part of its upper deck in San Francisco's severe 1989 quake. A marvel in its day, the bridge is now dangerously unsound, with the easternmost 1.5 miles anchored in deep mud. City and state planners opted to replace the eastern span, at an estimated cost of $6.3 billion, rather than retrofit it, but construction stalled for years, as competing political interests squabbled over details like bike lanes and a decorative tower. Construction won't be finished until 2012 at the earliest, more than two decades after inspectors deemed the existing bridge unsafe.
And now, after New Orleans's catastrophic flooding, Northern California's confidence in its 1,100 miles of fragile levees-which extend northeast from the San Francisco Bay to Sacramento-is beginning to look misplaced. Not only are parts of this 1,600-square-mile delta a good 30 feet below sea level; and not only does its network of levees control the water supply for California's agriculture industry and every city in the southern half of the state, but the Hayward fault also runs right underneath. And, according to Jeffrey Mount, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California- Davis, developers have proposed building 100,000 new homes on a flood plain between the East Bay and the state capital that any severe levee breech, due to a storm or an earthquake, would turn into a lake. "It might not be this generation, it might be the next generation, but there will be extraordinary suffering as these urban areas flood just the way they did in New Orleans," Mount says. Water supply to more than half the state would likely halt for months, or longer.
California, with its powerful economy, would rebuild after a Big One, perhaps more easily than New Orleans will. But Katrina's aftermath offers a terrifying glimpse of how California's low-income citizens could fare if fema's prophecy comes to pass. Their homes will be the first to collapse, and their neighborhoods, many of them built on the region's softest soil, will be arduous for rescue teams to navigate. They will be the least likely to have friends and relatives far from the city to take them in, and they will be the most likely to require public shelter. Only 13 percent of homeowners, disproportionately affluent, have purchased costly and extremely limited earthquake insurance from the state (the private insurance industry pulled out after the Northridge quake, when they paid for half of the recovery). And much of the city's affordable housing will simply never return. Roughly one-quarter of the city's low- and moderate-income homes disappeared after the 1989 earthquake; landlords are no longer bound by rent-control laws if their buildings need substantial renovation, and, if they collapse, there are far more profitable uses for the land.
Katrina has shown that disasters will not wait for a community to finish shoring up against them, nor will crises wait for cities to mark up their crisis plans. And, unfortunately, the federal government cannot be counted on to step in and help when local efforts are overwhelmed. The Applied Technology Council report will give San Francisco planners an opportunity. When the Building Department commissioned the study, it intended to use the findings to target legislation and investment where it can have the greatest impact. Already, the city mandates upgrades to unstable brick buildings. Officials could take a similar approach to high-occupancy concrete or soft-story housing, where preventing a collapse would save hundreds of lives. They could even require landlords to disclose a building's seismic soundness to its residents, finally giving owners of affordable housing an incentive to renovate their property.
Of course, crises-even those of Katrina's magnitude-do not always spur change; if Katrina illustrates anything, it is that governments are seldom willing or able to commit astronomical sums to fight dangers that may never materialize. Americans have always been a little too comfortable with risk. But they have less tolerance for loss, and officials across the country will not soon forget the public's angry hunt for culprits after Katrina. That may be enough to prompt a surge of interest and activity in San Francisco and the state House. Emergency preparedness requires constant study and coordination, but a single season of new planning and building laws, or a brief wave of investment in the state's most vulnerable spots, could leave residents safer for decades, even if public and political attention wanes. If fema's prediction comes to pass, it would be nice if the aftermath of the third disaster doesn't look like the first two.
Douglas McGray is a San Francisco-based writer and a fellow at the New America Foundation.