The HayWired scenario of lost homes

Soft-story damage in San Francisco’s Marina district, 1989. Retrofit programs in Oakland aim at preventing this kind of destruction.

As you all know, the Hayward fault runs through the middle of Oakland and the whole East Bay, and as you all know it will rupture some day in a large, destructive earthquake — a catastrophe on the scale of the 1906 San Francisco quake and fire, or Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

A large group of researchers led by the U.S. Geological Survey has been working with governments, insurers and others on ways to foresee what the earthquake will do, in hopes we can counteract the worst of it beforehand and cope better with it afterward. Their product is a detailed earthquake scenario, called HayWired, that enables planners of all kinds to work together in a coordinated way and come up with meaningful, actionable recommendations. I’ve been following the effort, and reporting on it here, for four years now.

Last week I checked in on the state of the effort in an online seminar by SPUR, the regional planning nonprofit, titled “Where Is Home after a Large Earthquake in the Bay Area?” (This and previous seminars can be found here.) Prompted by the release of new chapters in volume 3 of the HayWired report, it focused on rebuilding housing after the HayWired quake in the communities most at risk. Forgive the metaphor, but we have to light a fire under all levels of government and keep blowing on it.

The HayWired scenario earthquake is a magnitude-7 event that occurs on an April morning, rupturing the whole northern half of the fault from an initiation point under the Crestmont neighborhood. As the shaking ends, landslides grind their way down hundreds of hillsides, bayside ground turns to soup and almost 500 large fires are triggered. Some 800 people are dead, not counting deaths related to the fires. In the nine-county Bay area, a million buildings are damaged or destroyed. Property losses amount to $40 billion in Alameda County alone. These are the best estimates we know how to make.

That’s all before we get to the local impacts. A belt of badly damaged neighborhoods extends along the fault from Pinole to Fremont plus outliers in Novato, Pleasanton and Vallejo, but the community most at risk is all of East Oakland.

Even when the houses survive, neighborhoods don’t just heal. People will keep leaving heavily damaged areas, in “voluntary displacement,” for three understandable reasons:

1. They can’t afford to stay — their jobs fail, their money runs out, rents rise too high.

2. They can’t stand to stay — roads and transit and water are down for months and perhaps longer; schools and shelters shut down; aftershocks drive them nuts.

3. They don’t have to stay — they’re young, they’re mobile, they’re ready to go somewhere better.

Voluntary displacement was a notable factor after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, when neighborhoods turned into “ghost towns” as people kept moving out, especially where multifamily residences were common. In New Orleans it was even worse. And it will be a big consideration in East Oakland, where so many residents already have “vulnerability factors” like low income, language problems, youth and old age, and lack of education.

I’m almost done with the bad news. Government money will be slow in coming and far short of the need. Earthquake insurance will help individuals who can afford it, but no one will be made whole. And some areas will require a complete makeover, which will take years of planning and be politically fraught.

What can be done to help in advance? We have shoestrings of help like the state government’s earthquake insurance fund. We have the state’s Earthquake Brace + Bolt program that helped pay to strengthen 15,000 dwellings. (Until they announce more funding for 2021 especially for underserved neighborhoods, you can find qualified contractors on their website.) Oakland has a slow-moving mandatory retrofit project aimed at saving our existing housing stock from collapse. Those small-scale programs are laudable, but they won’t cut it.

Speakers at the seminar pointed to larger efforts. On the biggest scale, SPUR issued a report this year on fixing the Bay area’s massive housing problem over the next 50 years. Every new house or apartment is more earthquake-resistant than anything older, which is why I strongly favor housing construction at all scales. I learned the most from Maziar Movassaghi of the state Department of Housing and Community Development, who had hard-won advice from the 2018 Camp Fire disaster. Recovery has taken years because people couldn’t build new multifamily housing until the roads and infrastructure were ready, and then the financing took even longer. The bureaucracy is complicated, the money is tight and it all takes too long for people to endure. And all the while the pressure is to do the easiest thing — build back what used to be there — rather than the resilient thing — build something better.

What Movassaghi recommended was to have plans in place for housing recovery after disasters, the lack of which was a big obstacle after the fires. (He noted a good example from San Jose.) Funding agencies won’t just write a big check — a multiyear community development block grant — if your city can’t show them it knows what it’s doing. Such plans, he said, should be made jointly by community-development folks and emergency-management folks, to make sure the new neighborhood will come through the next disaster better than it did this one. Having good plans in place can save your city years of misery.

For most of us this kind of work is above our pay grade, but it’s within our horizon of concern. We can do what citizens do: listen, learn and lobby our public servants.

Previous posts:

HayWired, an imaginary earthquake coming in 2018

News from the HayWired fault

Earthquake advice for Oaklanders 4: What to do

One Response to “The HayWired scenario of lost homes”

  1. ealdredsca Says:

    Interesting information. One can only hope they start moving quicker on implementing these.

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