The pandemic has put San Francisco into slow disaster for more than a year. And it gives the city an unexpected chance to prepare for another type of disaster: the big one.
Exactly 115 years after one of the most devastating events in California history, the great 1906 earthquake and fire, city guides have learned lessons from their emergency response to COVID-19 that they can apply to the next major tremor.
One of them is to focus on equity and inclusion right away. Now that city officials have geared much of San Francisco’s approach to COVID-19 testing and vaccination to the neighborhoods hardest hit by the virus, they believe the strategy shouldn’t be limited to pandemics.
“What it looks like in an earthquake is you are not creating shelters for people on mission in another place as far away as Golden Gate Park,” said Mary Ellen Carroll, executive director of the San Francisco contingency management division.
Once the pandemic subsides, Carroll would like the city to hold regular meetings with organizations that serve Latino residents and other community groups to discuss earthquake preparedness and connections established over the past year of the pandemic response.
“We have never done that before,” she said. “It’s not that we never prepared for communities, but never as we understand it now.”
The 7.9 magnitude earthquake that struck San Francisco on April 18, 1906, remains the worst disaster the city has ever seen. An estimated 3,000 people died and more than 80% of the city’s buildings were destroyed in earthquakes and fires.
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s supply of earthquake-proof pipes.
Nick Otto / Special on The Chronicle
But the pandemic, which killed more than 500 Franciscans and infected another 35,000, has tested the city’s civil protection apparatus in unprecedented ways, forcing it into a constant state of emergency management. Some city workers have been diverted from their usual jobs to pandemic-related duties for more than a year.
San Francisco also had to ensure that critical infrastructures like water and electricity worked smoothly despite physical distancing and distant work situations. Community organizations that are not normally responsible for emergency response have campaigned for pandemic relief, including through the Resource Hub of the Latino Task Force in the mission. The city turned the Moscone Center into a mass vaccination center and before that into a homeless shelter – a possible use after an earthquake.
“It really helped us to stress test some of our systems,” said Brian Strong, the city’s chief resilience officer, of the pandemic.
At the state level, emergency managers received a crash course last year in order to react to not one, but several disasters that overlap at the same time. As the virus spread wide and quickly, forest fires also raged out of control, burning a record 4.2 million acres.
The same could happen if a catastrophic earthquake occurred while massive wildfire was already burning. In such a situation, officials in the affected area would rely heavily on aid agreements from other cities, counties and states. Other countries could also come to help respond, as they have done with fires before.
“We’re making our stuff here in California on the assumption that we could have more than one major event at a time,” said Christina Curry, assistant director of the governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “We designed things with this possibility.”
Curry said she also learned many lessons from the pandemic that could occur during an earthquake – especially when it comes to rapidly changing work systems.
“An earthquake could turn a business center in a big city into something we won’t have access to for a while,” Curry said. “How can you restore government and industry and keep the state running if you cannot access your facilities as usual? For another reason, many places had to switch to a different way of working during the pandemic. “
Experts cannot predict the next earthquake in San Francisco. Peggy Hellweg, operations manager at UC Berkeley’s seismology laboratory, compared the underground situation to a stretchy rubber band – after all, the band will break and cause a severe earthquake that devastated San Francisco 115 years ago.
“We really don’t know how much we need to stretch it before the next big one happens,” Hellweg said. “It could happen tomorrow. It could be 50 or 100 years. “
Compared to San Andreas, which runs through San Francisco, the Hayward Fault in the East Bay “has expanded for a long time,” Hellweg said. The last major earthquake in this fault occurred in 1868, and millions more people now live along the fault zone.
But population growth alone does not mean the fate of everyone who lives on the Hayward Fault.
“Houses of all kinds that were built in the last 20 or 30 years are much safer in an earthquake than houses that were built before 1970, simply because of all the things we have learned from (past) earthquakes,” said Hellweg .
Just because a building remains standing does not mean that it is not structurally damaged beyond repair.
“The question of whether this housing can be used after an earthquake has a completely different answer,” said Hellweg.
San Francisco has tried to solve this problem by requiring upgrades to some of its most vulnerable homes. The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 damaged many of the Marina district’s soft buildings, characterized by wooden frames and wide street-level openings that often house garages or commercial space. City officials have ordered seismic retrofits for about 5,000 such buildings, and the program, due to be completed this year, is more than 80% complete.
After quiet stories, San Francisco’s next priority is addressing concrete buildings, said Strong, the city’s chief resilience officer. Within the next year, city officials plan to have a better understanding of which concrete buildings are vulnerable and which are not as they ponder new local rules.
“Unlike soft stories where you can drive by and tell, these concrete buildings are a lot more difficult,” said Strong. “You really have to go in and take a closer look at them.”
Parts for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission earthquake-proof pipe supply.
Nick Otto / Special on The Chronicle
The city also protects critical parts of its water system from a major earthquake failure. This summer, workers will be installing new pipes with flexible connections at College Hill Reservoir in Bernal Heights, which supplies water to San Francisco General Hospital. The pipes, made by Japanese company Kubota, can move horizontally and vertically like a ball, said Katie Miller, director of water capital programs at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
“When the earth moves from the stresses of an earthquake, the entire pipe network can react and move with it instead of the joints pulling out,” Miller said. “You can hold back these forces and stay there even if the ground completely collapses around them. This is really great.”
The work, slated to begin in June, aims to replace approximately 4,000 feet of aging pipe. It’s part of a multi-year project that should cost around $ 50 million in total.
JD Morris is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @thejdmorris