Earthquake advice for Oaklanders 4: What to do

The first thing to do about earthquakes in Oakland is PREPARE! Well OK, but prepare for what?

To get our attention, a team of federal and state geologists got together a few years ago and prepared an elaborate forecast of a seriously large earthquake on the Hayward fault, a magnitude 7 rupture from Point Pinole down to Hayward, and the whole process of coping with and recovering from it. They called it the HayWired Earthquake Scenario to emphasize the 21st-century vulnerabilities of the wired East Bay, where everything depends on electricity and the internet. The scenario was made to be studied closely by people of all kinds whose business is planning ahead. It will do for my purposes.

The HayWired earthquake starts with a rupture on the fault right underneath the Crestmont neighborhood in Oakland, and the rupture proceeds in both directions from there. Strong shaking lasts for a good thirty seconds.

Look around where you’re sitting and picture it. You feel as if two big strong people are shoving you back and forth between them. Impossible to stay standing. More big strong people are going nuts around you: knocking over your bookshelves and dressers, pulling everything out of your cabinets, smashing your aquarium and your floor lamps. Trees outside are snapping off limbs, vehicles on the road losing control. The lights go out. Your laptop flips to the floor, suddenly on battery power. The quake itself roars like a locomotive, and the buildings around you snap, crackle and pop. You hear screaming and car alarms and shattering glass. It goes on and on.

That thirty-second period is what “Drop, Cover, Hold On” is about. If you have the presence of mind to do anything at all, that’s all you should do. Drop to the floor. Take cover underneath something. Hold on to it. Forget about standing in doorways, forget about running somewhere, try not to shout useless things. This is why we have earthquake drills, to make this behavior a life-saving reflex.

The hard shaking will stop after that endless thirty seconds, succeeded by a lot of reverberations and aftershocks. As soon as you can, get up and deliberately make ready to leave, even if everything seems okay for the moment. This is the stage I’m talking about when I say PREPARE. For details, start with Ready.gov or your own favorite preparedness site.

A couple other things. Stay nearby; don’t try to skip town in your car. Don’t tie up the phone system; text one out-of-town contact and save your phone battery. And be prepared to wait; everything will take time. I made these points in more detail in another post.

We have a hard time facing the threat of large earthquakes. The prospect rouses fear, and too much fear is paralyzing. I suggest thinking in terms of three categories, a set of three mental lists, labeled “Face it,” “Calm down” and “Perk up.”

Face it

I can guarantee you that the Big One will be worse than you imagine. Face it. Bad as it will be, though, that part will pass in less than a minute. The aftershocks, in their own way, will be just as bad, and they’ll go on for months. Maybe this is more of a “thinking about it won’t help” list. Move on to the second list.

Calm down

The Big One will kill hundreds of people, but I can also almost — almost — guarantee that you won’t be one of them. Calm down. If even 1000 people are killed in the East Bay’s population of 2.5 million, the odds against you are so small you can ignore them. Pay attention to the more realistic threats that will hinder your life, not kill you. That leads to the third list.

Perk up

Think about the different spaces in your life — where you sleep, where you work, where your most important stuff is — and come up with tangible ways you can prepare. Perk up. For instance, there are apps, there are ways you can look forward to helping science. Other things that perk me up may appeal only to other geo-geeks, but they include visiting the fault while it’s still sleeping, and the occasional game of quakespotting.

Back in my first post of this series, I said I was thinking about earthquakes because we’re in a year of disasters, and the kind of disaster I know the most about is earthquakes. The reason this really matters to me right now is that while every disaster changes us, every disaster ends. In effect, the aftermath is a new age.

Oakland’s last earthquake, in 1989, changed everyone who went through it — it imposed a certain solidarity upon us. And almost all of the wounds the quake gave us have healed stronger. Damaged buildings have been replaced or renovated.

Freeways and water mains and power lines have been strengthened. Households are better prepared and rehearsed. The city is requiring residences to have their dangerous soft stories fixed.

The disasters of 2020 have affected areas larger than Oakland or even the Bay area. Wildfires have struck huge regions, the unemployment crisis has hit the whole state, and the pandemic is a national tragedy. But they’ll all end. The Trump administration will end. And the next big earthquake, in all its instant and drawn-out consequences, will end. A time will come when we can make some long-awaited changes and build back wiser and better.

This set of posts addresses Oakland’s seismic situation, but that’s only one of the natural hazards we’re prone to. There’s also the complication of living not just with earthquakes, but with everything else about California, like our droughts and floods, our heat waves and landslides, our wildfires and our economy. Earthquakes have intersectionality with all of these other risks — what we do about those risks affects how we act with respect to earthquakes, and vice versa.

For example, landslides can be triggered by winter rains or earthquakes, so consider a big earthquake in winter. As I wrote here for the 150th anniversary of the last big East Bay earthquake, “If we’re lucky during the next big quake, as we were in 1868, the ground will be dry. If we aren’t, and the ground is waterlogged, well, heaven help us because we’ll get both kinds of landslide at once.”

In that perspective, the growing gorilla in the room (to mangle a metaphor), the one that makes all the others worse, is climate change. I thought that Benjamin Hatchett of the Desert Research Institute, in Reno, summarized the situation well in a recent paper about atmospheric rivers: “California’s complex terrain, biogeographical diversity, proximity to the data‐sparse North Pacific Ocean, and large population and economy provide an environment both dependent upon and highly susceptible to weather and climate extremes. These include extreme precipitation events, flooding, land‐surface mass wasting, multiyear droughts and pluvials, heat waves, and wildfires. Many of these extremes are projected to worsen or become more impactful in a warming climate.”

Climate change will force all of us in this civilization, leaders and neighbors alike, to up our game.

One Response to “Earthquake advice for Oaklanders 4: What to do”

  1. CB Says:

    Among your photos, I believe is the Key System Building at 11th and Broadway. IIRC, it was already vacant before the 1989 and at least cosmetically, significantly damaged after the Loma Preita 1989 earthquake. It still stands today…vacant and/or abandoned.

    As for that glass tower behind the Key System building, BART engineers were very concerned about the stresses created by the foundation and ultimately the weight of the structure so close to the cut and cover wall of the transit system’s City Center BART Stn. Lasers and GPS mounted sensors monitor any abnormalities.

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