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. …