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Is Oakland ready for its next big earthquake?

Published May 3, 2011 on Oakland North

Oakland is overdue for a major earthquake. The Hayward Fault, which runs along Highway 13 at the foot of the Oakland hills and streams through the Oakland Zoo and Mills College, has produced a significant earthquake on average every 140 years for nearly the past millennium. The last substantial earthquake caused by this fault was in 1868 … that was 143 years ago.

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists call the Hayward Fault a “tectonic time bomb” and say it is one of the most dangerous faults in the United States. In 2007, they predicted a one in three chance of a damaging earthquake, with the magnitude of 6.7 or greater, along the fault within the next 30 years. And those numbers are only increasing.

“The 140th anniversary was 2008 and what we know about the fault has not changed,” says Tom Brocher, a seismologist with the USGS. “It’s been another three years and no big earthquake on the Hayward Fault has come—it’s getting more and more likely.” That’s not even mentioning a possible earthquake from the other faults surrounding the Bay Area, including the San Andreas Fault, Calaveras Fault, Rodgers Creek Fault and more.

This impending earthquake has been on Mayor Jean Quan’s radar for the past few years. Now, as mayor, she’s putting a sharper focus on how Oakland can prepare for catastrophe. Calling the possible future earthquake her “Katrina,” she’s working on making sure the city and its residents retrofit as many buildings as possible and are trained on what to do when the big one hits.

“We know we live in earthquake country,” Quan said at an emergency preparedness training for community organizations last week. “If it should happen, particularly if we don’t get our retrofits done, we could lose 15,000 lives and one third of rental properties.” If 15,000 people die in Oakland, that would be nearly 4 percent of the population or roughly one in 26 people.

The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) predicts that a major earthquake on the Hayward Fault will render over 15 percent of all of Oakland’s housing units uninhabitable, the majority of them apartments and condos. With these numbers, ABAG estimates that 21,500 shelter beds will be needed; currently Oakland only has the capacity for 5,000.

Looking beyond Oakland, the 1868 Hayward Earthquake Alliance, a membership organization that seeks to raise public awareness about the fault, believe a Hayward Fault earthquake would impact more than 5 million people and cause damage worth over $1.5 trillion in the six counties surrounding the fault. ABAG’s experts predict the earthquake could close 1,100 roads, including 900 in Alameda County alone. These potential road closures could leave people stranded and cause difficulty in delivering supplies.

After the southern tip of the San Andreas Fault near the Mexico border, the Hayward Fault has the second highest probability of producing a damaging earthquake of any fault in the U.S. “It’s the Sammy Sosa of the earthquake faults,” says Brocher.

When it does hit, Brocher says the shaking will be strong. “When we feel distant earthquakes, they have kind of a roll-y motion, like in the ocean on a boat,” he says. “When you feel an earthquake in your backyard, it’s not going to feel like that. It’s going to feel very sharp and impulsive, like a truck has run into your building.”

For many buildings in Oakland, the effect will be like a truck has run into them—the structures will probably stay intact but the first floor will collapse. The reason for this is that hundreds of apartment buildings in Oakland are what ABAG calls “soft story buildings,” or multi-unit structures over two stories tall with parking or commercial space on the first floor and built before 1990.

What makes soft story buildings vulnerable to earthquake damage is the lack of internal walls on the lower floors that would otherwise add support. With strong shaking, the first floor of these buildings can collapse causing the upper floors to fall the height of that first floor or making the entire building lean forward.

“When you’re on the upper floors you’re going to go for quite a ride if that first floor collapses,” says Danielle Hutchings, ABAG Earthquake and Hazards Program Coordinator, adding that most likely the upper floors won’t collapse. “The soft story will count for two thirds of housing loss in Oakland.”

In July 2009, the Oakland City Council amended the city’s municipal code to require seismic screenings of multiple-story residential buildings built before 1990. That same year, ABAG put together a report identifying all the soft story buildings in Oakland. First, ABAG volunteers collected data from the county about all buildings that fit the soft story profile, then groups of volunteers walked Oakland’s streets to verify whether parking or commercial space was on the first floors of these buildings. “We got a list of 1,500 buildings,” says Hutchings.

Using this list, Oakland city staffers sent letters to all the owners of those buildings notifying them that they must hire an inspector to evaluate whether the building needs to be retrofitted. Building owners have until July 29 of this year to complete these inspections. Once the results from the evaluations are collected, city officials will decide on next steps.

If the city decides that certain buildings need retrofits, most likely it will only require the first floors to be stabilized. “Retrofit designs can vary from building to building,” says Hutchings. “A lot of times what you can do is install a metal frame around the front of the building.” This metal frame won’t disrupt parking or access to the building but will provide earthquake resistance.

ABAG estimates that the price of retrofitting a building will be around $12,000 per unit, so bigger buildings will have costly retrofits. “The city is looking at ways to share those costs with the owners,” says Hutchings.

The city has worked to make the retrofit permitting process as cheap as possible by offering a flat fee of $250, which includes the cost of the permit and sending an inspector to approve retrofit plans. Previously, retrofit permits cost 10 percent of the retrofit construction, according to the City of Oakland.

Another way the city is looking to share costs with home and building owners is supporting earthquake safety bill AB 184. State assembly member Sandré Swanson, who represents the district that covers Oakland, Alameda and Piedmont, is spearheading this bill, which would allow cities to create funds to help homeowners pay for seismic retrofits of their homes.

Mayor Quan says it is key to encourage this type of preventative retrofitting in Oakland. “It takes decades to rebuild when you have major devastation,” says Sue Piper, spokesperson for Quan. “It is geometrically more expensive after the fact.”

USGS scientist Brocher says he applauds Oakland officials for looking into preventative ways to reduce earthquake damage. “These big earthquakes have the potential for being real game-changers in terms of communities,” he says. “It’s important we take as much action as we can to mitigate the effects.”

The city is also launching emergency preparedness workshops with the governmental CORE (Communities Organized to Respond to Emergencies) program and the non-profit CARD (Collaborating Agencies Respond to Disaster) program for residents and local organizations. During these workshops people rehearse searches for victims, establish first aid and communication centers and practice other types of post-disaster planning. CORE workshops are open to the public and anyone can attend for free and CARD workshops are available to agencies and organizations.

At a CARD workshop last Monday, Oakland’s Deputy Chief of Police Jeff Israel emphasized the need for every single person in the city to be prepared because professional first responders might not be available. Even though the police department has had “thousands of hours of training,” he said, “what you have to realize is when that earthquake hits—and it will hit—the police station will fall.” He said that one of Oakland’s soft story buildings is the downtown police department, which means police may have trouble responding.

“We may be relying on you,” to provide help to family and neighbors, he said. “We keep hearing it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming—believe me, it is going to happen and the community is going to need to know how to respond.”

The City of Oakland recommends that all residents take a CORE workshop, think of earthquake plans with family members and neighbors, and create an earthquake kit that contains food and enough water to provide one gallon of water daily to each person for one week.

In the event of an earthquake, people are advised to “drop, cover and hold” until the earthquake is over. Brocher says to stay inside and get under a big piece of furniture until the shaking finishes. “You don’t run outside,” he says. “That’s how you get killed—by things falling off buildings.” In the U.S., buildings may be severely damaged but are designed to make it through earthquakes, he says. ABAG experts agree and say that although a soft story building’s first floor may collapse, most likely the entire building won’t fall over.

People should also call 211—a public information system put in place for disasters—if they are in an emergency situation after an earthquake instead of 911, which can be easily overloaded.

“The thing with earthquakes is we can’t predict them,” Brocher says. “We are all responsible in getting ready for the earthquake. Governments should do their share but everyone should do something—nobody should be let off the hook.”

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