Engineers meet in SF to discuss earthquakes

February 4, 2010 8:32:30 PM PST
There was a 5.9 earthquake that occurred 50 miles west of Eureka on Thursday. It is in the same area where a 6.5 earthquake hit less than a month ago. That quake on Jan. 9 caused roughly $40 million in damage.

Nevertheless, earthquakes were also on the minds of some people in San Francisco on Thursday. In fact, even as Eureka shook, the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute was talking about best and worst case scenarios. Their projections for the Bay Area could have been better, but also could have been worse.

If you have been around the Bay Area long enough, it is probably part of your subconscious. Many are living with a hair trigger feeling that comes from the turf in an earthquake zone.

"I would say San Francisco should be more worried than it thinks it should be," says civil engineer Chris Poland.

Poland joined some of the best earthquake damage prevention people in the world on Thursday in a San Francisco high rise. They are a group of academics, civil engineers and students -- people you might not know you need until it is too late.

"It's always hard to sell. After the quake, after Loma Prieta, after Northridge, it comes home to people," says Poland.

As those engineers like to point out, the longer the Bay Area goes without the ground shaking, many feel the greater the sense of security. But in fact the opposite is true, especially with two earthquake faults, the San Andreas and Hayward, running through the region.

It has been 103 years and change since San Francisco fell and burned to a level of devastation similar to what occurred in Haiti last month.

"A third of the city is gone. In terms of people, a third of the people have lost their homes," says Reggie DesRoches from Georgia Tech University.

DesRoches earned his Ph.D. at U.C. Berkeley, but grew up in Haiti, which has become the living, worst-case scenario for what happens when cities do prepare. He just returned last Friday.

"Everybody I met during those seven days we were there, cab drivers, people we work with, lost somebody whether it was a mother, daughter, father, son, cousin," says DesRoches.

The warning for today was that just because San Francisco survived Loma Prieta, it may not be as lucky next time without serious retrofitting of older buildings, from before the 1980s that people have come to take for granted.

"For all the work we've done, they're not safe because we're still imagining there will be thousands of people killed and tens of thousands injured because of the old building stock. We have 80 percent of our buildings built prior to modern codes," says Poland.

That is not exactly reassuring, but at least, when the big one hits, the engineers can remind us they told us so.