The Bay Area’s earthquake folly

Just days before the latest swarm of earthquakes in Indonesia, San Francisco took a step closer to building an 80 story tower in its downtown, while UC Berkeley is proceeding with plans to build a new sports center and expanded stadium atop the Hayward Fault. This despite the fact that most of San Francisco was leveled by the 1906 Earthquake and fire, while an 1868 earthquake on the Hayward Fault wrecked cities in the East Bay and caused severe damage in San Francisco.

Virtually all of the Bay Area’s growth has occurred in the seismically quiet period following the 1906 quake, but no one doubts that major quakes are likely in the near future. According to the USGS, there is a 62 percent probability of a 6.7 magnitude or greater quake in the next 30 years, but talk privately with seismologists and they will tell you that the likelihood is much, much higher.

The official studies offer dramatic numbers for financial loss ($20 Billion) and loss of structures (150,000 uninhabitable residences), but play down loss of life — estimating deaths in the low hundreds for most scenarios. But this too is conservative, considering that the 1995 Kobe quake (an area quite similar to the Bay Area) caused 6,000 deaths.

These numbers are sobering, but they don’t even begin to account for the secondary damage — closed highways, destroyed water supplies and shuttered hospitals, fire stations and airports — that will cause yet more misery. Under the circumstances, the Bay Area should be single mindedly reducing its risks, not building further into danger with frivolous high-rises and public structures placed directly atop faults. As Will and Ariel Durant once wrote, “civilization exists by geologic consent, revocable at any time.” If the Bay Area isn’t careful, it may just be courting revocation sooner rather than later.