Atlantic Cities

Preparing San Francisco for the Next Big One

Preparing San Francisco for the Next Big One
SPUR

Earthquakes are ingrained in San Francisco culture. Two major quakes – in 1906 and 1989 – dramatically reshaped the city, and have seared the could-happen-at-any-moment possibility of another big one in the minds of many people in the city and the Bay Area region. Mostly it’s a quiet concern or background noise that fades deep into a pile of more pressing day-to-day concerns. But the thought is still there, and the next big one, technically, could happen at any moment.

This inevitability of loss, though, has been a challenge from a policy and political perspective. Locals and politicians alike are at least slightly convinced another earthquake is coming, and that it could be as or even worse than 1906 and 1989. But when? And how much city money should be spent to prepare for it?

At least some money, says a new report and exhibition from the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, or SPUR, should focus on retrofitting the city’s housing stock to make it habitable after an earthquake.

"The United States Geological Survey estimates that there’s a 63 percent likelihood that we’re going to have a major earthquake in the Bay Area in the next 30 years. So we know this earthquake is going to happen," says Sarah Karlinsky, SPUR deputy director. "But it’s really hard to get people to think about it and what it might mean."

The report urges the city to be more prepared for this looming earthquake, but as Karlinsky notes, it’s not the easiest political move. But if the USGS is right in its estimates, getting the city ready would seem a prudent approach. SPUR’s report, "Safe Enough to Stay," argues that now’s the best time to start.

"We need to be thinking about how we want to recover, how we want long-term recovery to work," Karlinsky says. "We’re thinking about setting standards for how we want our buildings sand our utilities to perform."

The key issue is habitability. The housing stock in the city would no doubt be damaged should the city be hit by a big earthquake like the 7.1-magitude Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. But not all of it would be demolished, depending on the scale of the quake. What would likely be left in a post-earthquake San Francisco are houses damaged enough to need repairs but not damaged enough to have to demolish. SPUR’s report refers to “shelter-in-place” standards, meaning a house is damaged but not so badly that its occupants can't live in it while it’s being fixed. About a quarter of the housing stock in San Francisco does not meet this standard, and SPUR’s report argues that needs to change. It calls for 95 percent of housing to meet the shelter-in-place standard.

If a big one were to hit, the city is equipped with emergency shelter space for 60,000 people. But there are roughly 85,000 households that don’t meet the shelter-in-place standards, which could mean 85,000 households worth of displaced people after a major earthquake.

After a magnitude quake of 7.2 earthquake on the San Andreas fault, San Francisco would expect the percentage of housing in red to be unusable, meaning not safe enough for residents to remain in their homes.

"People aren’t going to want to stay in a shelter for months and months," says Karlinsky. "So what do we do during those months after an earthquake, when housing is being repaired? And currently the city doesn’t really have an interim housing strategy."

To help reduce the need for emergency housing and shelter space, SPUR calls for a mandatory retrofit program for some of the most vulnerable households in the city: “soft story” buildings, those with three-stories or more and a ground floor garage or storefront type window. A city study found that 2,800 of these buildings might not be repairable after a major earthquake.

And while housing people and keeping them safe should be a priority for the city, there’s also an economic impact to consider. If people get displaced from their homes and there’s nowhere for them to stay, they might be forced to leave the city. SPUR’s report calls for more attention to be paid to requiring landlords to retrofit buildings and to ensure that they at least meet the shelter-in-place standards.

"A bad thing that could happen is that a building is deemed uninhabitable when really it’s safe enough to shelter in and people end up getting displaced for long periods of time and then not moving back," says Karlinsky. "We don’t want to end up losing our workforce to other places."

The report also suggests the creation of neighborhood support centers – places that, during the aftermath of a devastating quake, can offer relief and aid among communities. They could be places to go to find or share supplies, use makeshift showers, charge cell phones, or even get the help of volunteer inspectors to determine whether buildings are habitable. At an exhibit opening today in their San Francisco gallery space, SPUR has models of a neighborhood support center and an earthquake-damaged house that meets shelter-in-place standards.

Karlinsky says these precautions need to start being made now to help the city prevent major problems if a big one does hit. She’s hoping the report will help to generate public and political support for these types of policies and preparations. Though a mandatory retrofit program was being pushed by former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s administration, the incentive program got stalled. Karlinsky is hoping that current Mayor Ed Lee will restart that effort. The quake may not happen during his term, or during that of the next mayor, but rolling out preparations now will prevent greater destruction whenever that time comes.

Map courtesy SPUR; Photo credit: Noah Christman

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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