Waiting for the Big One ; When - Not If - a Major Earthquake Hits San Francisco, the Bay Will Tear in Two, California Will Descend into Chaos, and Thousands Could Die. Not Surprisingly, Nerves Are Beginning to Fray. Andrew Gumbel Reports from a City on the Edge. Photographs by Thomas Kern

By Gumbel, Andrew | The Independent (London, England), June 21, 2003 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Waiting for the Big One ; When - Not If - a Major Earthquake Hits San Francisco, the Bay Will Tear in Two, California Will Descend into Chaos, and Thousands Could Die. Not Surprisingly, Nerves Are Beginning to Fray. Andrew Gumbel Reports from a City on the Edge. Photographs by Thomas Kern


Gumbel, Andrew, The Independent (London, England)


THERE ARE certain places you don't want to be when the Big One hits San Francisco. And it will hit; that much the scientists agree on. A recent study by the US Geological Survey, a bureau of the country's Department of Interior, suggests it is a virtual certainty that an earthquake measuring 6 or higher on the Richter scale will hit the San Francisco Bay Area some time in the next 30 years.

There's only a 62 per cent chance that it will reach truly calamitous levels - 6.7 or higher - but that's hardly grounds for comfort, since the size of the earthquake probably won't be as significant as its location. There are eight faults in the area immediately around San Francisco. Some are tucked under sparsely inhabited mountain ranges. Others run directly beneath one of the most densely populated and most economically valuable urban areas in the world.

If the region and its six million people are lucky, the death and destruction will be on a modest scale - a flipped-over freeway here, a few thousand houses rendered uninhabitable there, gas and electricity knocked out for days rather than months. That, in essence, is what happened in 1989, when an earthquake centred on Loma Prieta, 50 miles south of San Francisco, killed 65 people and caused $7bn in damage.

But if one of the big faults goes - either the San Andreas (which runs the length of California, skirting San Francisco's south- western corner and classy southern suburbs), or the Hayward (which runs directly beneath the biggest cities along the east side of the Bay) - then the possibilities become truly terrifying. The official scenarios talk of hundreds of thousands of people forced from their homes; water, sewage and electricity out for weeks; and bridges and road systems impassable even for emergency vehicles. Nobody likes to discuss the death toll, but most experts think it could easily run into many thousands.

Whatever happens, you wouldn't want to be on any of the eight major bridges that criss-cross the Bay. Even on the Golden Gate Bridge, which would probably survive, the violent swaying would hurl cars against each other and create monstrous pile-ups. On the Bay Bridge, an altogether less certain piece of work which connects San Francisco with Oakland, a section as long as a football pitch on the eastern half could simply collapse piece by piece.

If it was the Hayward fault that ruptured, then terror would sweep through much of the East Bay, with scores of older flophouse hotels and mid-rise office buildings that have not been adequately earthquake-proofed at risk of collapse in downtown Oakland, along with many of the prefabricated discount warehouses a few miles to the south.

In San Francisco itself, whole rows of office buildings could collapse in the South of Market district, until recently the centre of the dot- com boom. Chinatown would be another danger area, as would the Marina District, an upscale residential neighbourhood of coffee bars, trendy restaurants and alternative health stores where in 1989 houses slid off their foundations and gas fires provoked by ruptured pipes destroyed 60 properties.

And you certainly wouldn't want to be at Memorial Stadium, the American football pitch on the campus of the University of f California at Berkeley, which sits right on top of the fault. In fact, you wouldn't want to be on campus at all - certainly not in one of the buildings still awaiting its turn in a state-sponsored billion-dollar retrofitting scheme. Until this retrofitting is done, even the seismograph machines, in the McCone Earth Sciences building on the northern edge of campus, risk getting mashed into scrap.

IT MIGHT seem odd to be contemplating destruction on such a scale in the sun-kissed techno-driven state of California. This is, after all, the most tightly regulated building environment in the world, with strict height limitations on buildings, all sorts of mandatory earthquake-proofing measures that any new structure must adhere to, ambitious retrofitting programmes and so on.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Waiting for the Big One ; When - Not If - a Major Earthquake Hits San Francisco, the Bay Will Tear in Two, California Will Descend into Chaos, and Thousands Could Die. Not Surprisingly, Nerves Are Beginning to Fray. Andrew Gumbel Reports from a City on the Edge. Photographs by Thomas Kern
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?