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(Photo images courtesy of the Museum of the City of San Francisco)

Waiting for the Big One
By Louis Martin
HE LOOKS LIKE a survivor, this one. Big guy, about sixty, gray hair straight back, bad-boy baseball cap on backwards, T-shirt, shades, and arms with recessed splotches looking like old burns. His cab is parked at the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill in San Francisco, the only structure other than the Flood mansion that survived the Big One of '06.
Despite the looks, he is easy-going and friendly. He is perhaps the mellower version of a turbulent past. He drives fast but not nutty like some of the younger drivers.
It is clear out now but there had been heavy drizzle the evening before. San Francisco can be wet in the summer, but lately it has been more hot than wet. The drizzle was soothing.
As he stops the cab in front of the Offices of Emergency Services on Turk, he turns around and says that it actually rained in the early hours downtown. "I stay up," he says, "till the sun rises - just to make sure it's still there."
A NEW EMERGENCY   center is going up next to the old OES building. The new center consists mostly of metal beams right now, surrounded by a high fence. Right now it is the structure; the flesh is to come later. When it is complete, OES will become a part of it. Built without foundation, it meets the ground via "base isolators" meant to absorb shock.
California is earthquake country, and those who study earthquakes claim there is a 50% chance of a major one in the next 30 years. But says Lucien Canton, Director of OES, "They have been saying that for the last twenty years. From our point of view a major earthquake is imminent."
Canton, though dressed in white shirt, tie, and dark business suit as favored by the Mayor's office, looks ready to roll. He has a jolly laugh and an easy smile. A former San Francisco fire chief, he doesn't let the thought of an earthquake - even a major one - get him down.
"I think anyone in emergency management is a little bit odd," says Canton. "It's like being a police officer; part of your profession is to think things that most people think are unthinkable."
Earthquakes are not the only thing that OES thinks about: there is a tsunami threat in the Bay that most people are unaware of; there is a hazardous material threat that most people are aware of; and there is also the unthinkable - a terrorist threat involving the use of weapons of mass destruction.
THE BIGGEST THREAT that OES is concerned with, however, is a major earthquake.
The last time a really big one happened - in the early morning of April 18, 1906 - much of the city was destroyed. A lesser one in 1989 did considerable damage and revealed a city that was poorly prepared.
In 1906 much of the city burned following the quake. Some earthquake experts believe it could happen again today with a magnitude-8 quake.
It is predicted there will be six major fires following such a quake as well as many lesser fires. Does the "city that knows how" have the equipment to fight those fires?
"Oh, no," says Canton, "no jurisdiction does. That is why we have to fight a disaster fire differently from a regular fire."
The normal focus of fire fighting is saving structures. But in a disaster fire, says Canton, "we may have to sacrifice neighborhoods ... we're just going to put in a minimum of apparatus to contain the fire."
If explosives are required, they are prepared to use them, says Canton.
One of the problems in the 1906 fire was that "amateurs" were using the explosives until the military was brought in. "They were actually helping to spread the fire," says Canton.
The current notion of dealing with disaster is the "regional" approach. With this notion, there would be "pockets" of damage. Some areas would be hit hard, but other areas would not. Presumably the areas that were not hit hard would supply resources to help the hard-hit areas. Coordination and communication are key to this approach working.
Canton cites Santa Cruz as an area that was hit hard in the 1989 quake. But the chief there did not ask for help. Says Canton, "He turned on the news, he saw San Francisco in flames and the bridge collapsed and figured, well, I'll just deal with what I got." In fact, though he was harder hit than anyone else, help could have been available.
The OES command center in San Francisco is new, as is the emergency management system. Before the 1989 quake, OES did not exist. Thus, though fires may rage and the city won't have the equipment to put them out, the city will at least be able to call for help.
One of the problems of the 1906 quake was empty cisterns. But Canton says the cistern system is now maintained "fairly well" and new ones have been added. There are also two independent water systems now, a portable system, and two fire boats.
DESPITE BETTER COMMUNICATIONS and the regional approach, Canton says that people should assume they are on their own for the first 72 hours. The first day will be spent figuring out what resources are needed; the second day those resources will start moving into position; and on the third day they will actually start doing their job. If called in, an urban search and rescue team from the Federal Emergency Management Agency has a "six hour window" from when they are first called to get to the airport, then there is the flight time .... And says Canton, "That is one of the faster units." Thus the actual response to removing people from collapsed buildings could be "pretty slow."
The worst areas for building failures would be South of Market, which is built on landfill in an area that was once part of the bay - and Chinatown, where there are many unreinforced masonry buildings. Much of the Financial District is also on landfill or what has come to be called "made ground" - and though the skyscrapers like the Bank of America Building are supposed to be built down to bedrock, it is not known for sure how they will react in a magnitude-8 quake. Before the Gold Rush began in 1849, South of Market and the financial district were part of Yerba Buena Cove, and the shoreline came up to what is now Montgomery Street.
Part of the landfill consists of the many boats that sailed into the bay during the Gold Rush era and were abandoned both by passengers and crew. It also consists of dirt and sand from nearby dunes, and trash and spoiled merchandise. At one time even crates of high-quality Virginia tobacco were sunk into the mud to create dry land. The dumpers were desperate to create flat dry ground, believing that San Francisco's hills were too steep to build on.
Though this area has been rocked by earthquakes - particularly severe ones back in the 1860s - and burned down before, the high-rises of the Financial District have not been tested.
Another general problem is the number of unreinforced masonry buildings in San Francisco. As of 1989 there were over 2000. Calls to the building department for updated figures went unreturned. And while one might expect higher building standards following such a colossal disaster as the 1906 earthquake, standards were in fact lowered. Wind, roof, and floor loads have been reduced by almost 50 percent.
This, apparently, is a common problem following a disaster. To encourage faster rebuilding, there is pressure from the business community to lower building standards.
"Do you relax your building codes so that you can encourage recovery ... or do you increase the requirements?" asked Canton.
In the case of San Francisco, political pressure and pressure from the financial community resulted in the decision to relax requirements. In fact pressure was so great that photographs were altered to show a city destroyed by fire and not earthquake, the idea being that insurance claims would not be honored if the real cause were known and investor capital for rebuilding would be scarce.
WHILE RETROFITTING UNREINFORCED masonry buildings sounds like a "no-brainer," it is a little more complicated from an owner's point of view. Says Canton, "You're the building owner and you want to upgrade. As soon as you do that, that triggers a whole bunch of code requirements ... it's not necessarily just an issue of 'I've got to reinforce this building; it's when I start to reinforce this building ....'" As a result, some owners don't find retrofitting "economically feasible."
Nevertheless, when people are crushed in buildings that need not have collapsed, the concept of economic feasibility may seem less tenable.
Building codes are not directly relatable to earthquake magnitudes, says Canton. They are based more on stress and shaking. There are other important factors in an earthquake than just the magnitude. The duration of the quake is especially important. One thing that made the 1906 quake so deadly was its duration: 48 seconds. Other factors are the type of wave and the ground. San Francisco's financial district and South of Market areas are rated extremely hazardous by the Association of Bay Area Governments.
Another problem facing the city in a major disaster is that some 80 percent of fire, police, and medical personnel live outside of the city, and in a major disaster it may be hard to get them back.
OES consists of five people, and all but one live in the city. Says Canton, "He was hired under a previous administration."
The Mayor's office has been pushing hard to get city employees to live in the city. But Canton says OES is looking at "options" to physically get people back to the city in an emergency. "Fire, police, and medical are the three that we want to get back in real fast."
One option is a ferry boat pickup. In a major disaster, however, some personnel may be unwilling to return due to problems in their own local areas.
Nevertheless, Canton says that San Francisco will do better in the next quake. But he admits: "You can give me a scenario where there's nothing we are going to be able to do."
There are three big rooms in the command center. All are filled with phones, computer terminals, and radio equipment. There are labels on chairs for the various functions of city personnel that will move in for the Big One. Now it is empty and quiet, neat as the proverbial pin. It looks disturbingly ready.
ACROSS THE STREET from the command center is Jefferson Square, which is not a square but a park on a steep sloping hill. Mid-slope there is a young couple sitting on a bench; down below there is an older man practicing the flute. A black woman wanders the park mumbling. "You a lawyer? You look like a lawyer. You a lawyer!" She looks like a survivor - the survivor, perhaps, of some kind of mental earthquake.
On the top of the hill and across the street on Eddy, there is a new row of white condominiums. Each abuts the next without space.
Along Franklin Street and heading north, one can see high while clouds drifting fast over the city towards the east. Time seems to be rushing forward, skipping to a new scene. At the corner of California, cars wait at a green light for an ambulance, siren screaming, to pass.

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Lucien Canton, Director of Offices of Emergency Services