Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Easter Quake

The foreshock came at 5:12 AM on Easter Sunday. About 25 seconds later, the full earthquake struck. The rumbling and shaking lasted 45 seconds to a minute. Immense forces ripped the landscape apart; in some places the ground moved as much as 20 feet.

No, this didn’t happen two days ago. It happened one hundred years ago today, and for the past three weeks, Bay Area residents have been enjoying saturation coverage of the centennial of the Great Quake that struck at 5:12 AM April 18, 1906, and devastated the city. Curators, cartographers, even choreographers have all paid tribute. A dozen or so survivors of the quake have been repeatedly interviewed, and they’re an astonishing bunch: quick-witted, energetic, and feisty. Some are still working.

You can watch the quake propagate—the viewpoint is from the west, showing how the central rupture spread north and south along the San Andreas. You can look at pictures of San Francisco then and now. And Tim Walton, an experienced news cameraman for NBC, points out that the quake signaled the beginning of citizen photojournalism. (He and his wife Kathy, a sound tech who often works with him, are friends of mine. Together, they've covered everything from Columbine to the Michael Jackson trial; Tim has also spent several tours in Iraq while Kathy stayed home with their children.)

The USGS, probably my all-time favorite government agency, offers a stunning exhibit on the quake, with photographs of the devastation, plus maps, and clear discussions of the science of the earthquake.

The real threat to the San Francisco Bay region over the next 30 years comes not from a 1906-type earthquake, but from smaller (magnitude about 7) earthquakes occurring on the Hayward fault, the Peninsula segment of the San Andreas fault, or the Rodgers Creek fault.

There’s an irony to this; many of the earthquake survivors fled to the perceived safety of the East Bay, which is where the next big threat is located. There’s a 27% chance of a magnitude 6.7 or larger quake on the Hayward by 2032. (There was a quake of that magnitude here in 1868; the ground moved three feet in some places.) You can see evidence that the fault is constantly moving.

Today it’s slowly creeping. Someday it will rupture, devastating the East Bay from San Pablo through Oakland and south to Fremont. Throughout the fault zone, the coastal plains near the bay are densely populated with homes and businesses, but in some places the hills are still grazing land for cattle. In other places, the hills are occupied by beautiful houses and at least one great university. Yes, Berkeley is on the Hayward fault. In fact, the fault runs between the goalposts of Berkeley’s football field. The East Bay is a ticking time bomb.

It’s also where I live.

Every single day I drive along the Hayward fault; it runs under Mission Street, which in my area is a strip of car dealerships, body shops, and transmission-repair places. I admit to slowing down whenever I pass the local expert on British luxury vehicles: I have to check out the classic 1930s Rolls-Royces, the Bentleys, and the Jaguar convertibles that are parked there, awaiting service. When the Hayward fault breaks, I hope it’s on a weekend, when those lovely cars are not directly in the line of destruction.

My workplace is constructed to withstand almost any quake, so despite its proximity to the fault I never worry about one when I’m here. We also have earthquake supplies: not just the usual ones mandated by law, but long-term survival supplies, because part of our job is disaster recovery.

My house is on bedrock, which should minimize shaking, and it’s at the peak of a hill with panoramic views. (On clear days we can see San Francisco and the Marin headlands beyond, plus the Bay and the Santa Cruz mountains on the other side) Specifically, it’s on the fault escarpment, the bluff that rose through the millennia as the Hayward fault broke and broke again. Yes, that’s right: I live perched like a ski-jumper above the most dangerous active local fault. Should it rupture again soon, I’ll have a front-row view of the devastation.

We who live on the fault are not helpless. Coming from a less seismically aware region of the country, I was astonished when I heard Californians matter-of-factly discussing the quake preparations they’d made. (Bolting bookcases to the wall, for example, or making sure the bed is not in falling distance of anything potentially lethal.)It’s possible to quakeproof your home. This won’t actually prevent any earthquakes, or even prevent your house from total destruction if the rupture happens in your front yard, but it’s useful advice. You can also learn to check for danger in a house you buy or rent.

Why stay? I was talking with Michele this morning. She pointed out, quite correctly, that the people who had fled the East Bay were jumping from the frying pan into the fire. “Didn’t anybody remember the 1868 quake?”

“That had been almost 40 years before, when there were a lot fewer people. Many people were new immigrants who didn’t know.”

“If I were looking for someplace safe, I’d have gone to South Dakota.”

“Where you have blizzards, tornadoes, heat waves, and droughts. And the Eastern seaboard is no better. There have been huge quakes in Boston and Charleston, and the Hudson River is on a fault. Someday New York City will get hit hard.”

She said, “I know—that’s why I picked South Dakota.”

“Why not Wyoming? There the biggest risk is that you’ll be beaten, set on fire, and tied to a fence to die.”

And that is one reason people stay here. It’s not just the spectacular climate. It sure as hell isn’t the real estate prices. Here at the edge of the continent, geeks and queers—both terms that have been reclaimed with pride—live in peace with people who would be average in Peoria. They’re used to us. We’re safe—as safe as we can ever be, anywhere.

So today, I celebrate the spirit of a city that survived the destruction of more than half its buildings. I celebrate the drive to rebuild more intelligently; every disaster has taught us more about how to live with our faults. I celebrate the San Francisco Bay Area. My home.

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