It's easy to understand why so many of us are ill prepared for the Big One. A frank discussion of everything that can and probably will go wrong in a major earthquake is profoundly depressing. So we choose to live in denial. A massive tremor will one day devastate our way of life, yet most of us have done nothing about it. Hundreds of thousands of us haven't retrofitted our homes. Tens of thousands of us live in death-trap "soft-story" apartment buildings. Thousands more work in old brick and concrete buildings likely to pancake when the ground convulses. And only a scant few of us have realistic plans for what to do when the Big One strikes.
This inevitable catastrophe gets equally short shrift from many of our public officials. When asked for candid assessments of the threats we face from a major quake on the Hayward Fault -- the Bay Area rift zone most likely to erupt within the next generation -- we're assured that we are probably more prepared for a major earthquake than any other metropolis on Earth. But are we really ready? How close are we to constructing what some engineers and seismologists call an "earthquake-rugged society"?
It's true that we're more prepared than we were in 1989, when the Loma Prieta earthquake killed 63 of us and left $10 billion in total damage. But that magnitude-6.9 quake was a lousy barometer. Its epicenter was more than sixty miles away, deep in the southern end of the Santa Cruz Mountains -- much too far away to accurately predict how we'll fare when the Hayward Fault finally rips apart.
A much better indicator jolted the far side of the Pacific ten years ago when a magnitude-6.9 quake rocked the Japanese city of Kobe, which in many ways is a mirror image of the East Bay. That January 1995 quake killed close to 6,500 people and caused at least $150 billion in damage. But according to a report published last month on the Kobe quake's ten-year anniversary, those numbers don't begin to completely reflect its long-term impact.
More than 400,000 of Kobe's buildings were damaged, including 100,000 complete collapses. More than two hundred acres of urban land burned. About 85 percent of the region's schools, hospitals, and other major public facilities sustained heavy damage. More than 845,000 households were without gas for as much as two and a half months. And water and sewer systems were lost in nearly 1.27 million homes and apartments for as long as four months. Business losses, if possible, were even worse. Unemployment skyrocketed to more than 50 percent, and much of the region's industrial zone was inoperable for months. Small- and medium-sized businesses went belly-up in record numbers; according to the report, about 80 percent failed.
Structural engineers generally agree that the Bay Area today is in better shape than Kobe was because of building-code upgrades and seismic-retrofit programs. But that doesn't mean fewer people will die during a similarly strong temblor on the Hayward Fault. Kobe was lucky. Its quake struck before the morning commute, when the vast majority of the city's 1.3 million residents were still at home. If the Hayward Fault lets loose on a weekday when hundreds of thousands of people labor in seismically unsafe office buildings, the East Bay death toll could match or exceed Kobe's.
The threat of a big Bay Area quake is not some sky-is-falling prediction. In 2002, a group of scientists led by the US Geological Survey estimated that there is a 62 percent chance of a magnitude 6.7-or-greater quake rupturing one of the Bay Area's faults in the next thirty years. There is a 27 percent chance of the same-size quake hitting the Hayward and Rodgers Creek faults, which connect beneath San Pablo Bay. The true nightmare scenario for the East Bay is a magnitude 6.9-or-greater quake that would rupture both the northern and southern sections of the Hayward Fault from Point Pinole to Milpitas. The working group put the odds of that quake at about 8.5 percent.
Over the years, several studies have detailed the various disaster scenarios we should expect from a 6.9-or-larger Hayward Fault temblor. The bluntest among them is A Dangerous Place, the final book by the late journalist Marc Reisner. Reading these reports leaves little doubt that the immediate death and destruction from a major quake on the Hayward Fault will be staggering, particularly on the west side of the East Bay hills. But so will the long-term suffering and widespread economic losses. The Association of Bay Area Governments estimates that hundreds of thousands of people will be left homeless. And if the quake hits when the East Bay hills are saturated with rainwater? There will be thousands of landslides, many of which will wipe out entire neighborhoods.
But perhaps the worst place to be when the Big One strikes is in one of our urban centers, which are chock-full of old brick and concrete buildings. "The devastation in our downtowns, such as downtown Hayward and downtown Oakland, will be severe," said William Lettis, who is one of California's leading earthquake experts, a member of the USGS working group, and was a main consultant for Reisner's book. "Certain communities in the East Bay have the potential to become ghost towns."
Racing against time, several public agencies have made significant strides in the past fifteen years. But a closer look at our vulnerabilities reveals we're a long way from being ready. Some of it involves bureaucratic foot-dragging that borders on the scandalous. For example, nearly all of the East Bay's hospital complexes include vital buildings that may collapse or be red-tagged after a 6.9 quake. Meanwhile, death-toll estimates for a 6.9 quake range from the low hundreds up to about five thousand, but many of these predictions omit key hazards. Case in point: None contemplates the destruction of the BART Transbay Tube during rush hour, when three or four trains are inside and more than four thousand riders could drown instantly.