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San Francisco centennial

"San Francisco centennial" Continued...

Issue: "Illegal passage," April 15, 2006

A close-by 6.9 earthquake would do so much destruction that 360,000 people would most likely be homeless, according to the Association of Bay Area Governments. That figure could be cut substantially if homeowners bolted their houses to their foundations, but since few do, William Lettis of the U.S. Geological Survey working group said simply, "Certain communities in the East Bay have the potential to become ghost towns."

Whether a 6.9 or higher earthquake came in the San Andreas Fault or the Hayward, timing would also be important. If it came during rush hour, thousands of subway riders could die in the BART Transbay Tube. BART subway stations and underground garages would be flooded. The easternmost part of the Bay Bridge, which lost part of its upper deck in the 1989 earthquake, stands in deep mud and would probably collapse. If the earthquake happened during the workday, a half-million commuters would be stranded and homeless in San Francisco for at least several days. Hundreds of unreinforced concrete office buildings would pancake, crushing all within.

San Francisco's city plan rightly places a lot of responsibility on city emergency, police, and fire workers-but most of them cannot afford to live in the city they are sworn to protect, so they often reside across the Bay Bridge. If the earthquake happened when they were off duty, they would most likely have no way to report to work. A San Francisco civil grand jury reported in 2003 that "first responders" were not ready to respond.

The jury also noted that government officials were producing lots of plans but even more confusion. San Francisco's situation was much like that of New Orleans when Katrina hit: The report stated that agencies were updating their plans without distributing new versions to other agencies and the public, so that agencies were likely to act at cross-purposes. Furthermore, guidelines seemed often intentionally vague so that agencies would be protected against lawsuits that would be filed when the agencies failed.

San Francisco in 2006, like New Orleans last year, is ruled by a paperocracy that makes leadership more difficult than it was a century before. When the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 threatened to turn the city into a carnival of looting, Frederick Funston-in charge of the San Francisco army garrison-ordered every available soldier to march to City Hall in full battle dress. Two hours later, two companies presented themselves to the mayor, who then issued an order saying that looters would be shot.

Such a policy would receive condemnation today, and not even Funston could fix the other emergency likely to develop following a Bay Area earthquake: flooding. The levees of northern California are not as famous as those of New Orleans, but they are even more fragile. Some 1,100 miles of levees defend farmland within the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a 1,600-square-mile plain that is up to 30 feet below sea level. It's where San Francisco Bay, the Sacramento River, and four others come together, and the area is so vulnerable that a massive storm or earthquake could collapse the levees and turn the area with its thousands of homes into a lake.

The consequences would reach far beyond the immediate victims: Brackish water rushing in after levee failure would contaminate the drinking water for 22 million Californians and the irrigation supply for 5 million acres of the Central Valley, America's leading agricultural producer.

The levees, originally built by a 19th-century, largely Chinese labor force, are for the most part poorly built earthen dams that already are taxed to their capacity (and sometimes beyond). Southern California has six months of water reserves, but it would take longer than that to remove the saltwater that would rush over collapsed levees.

As in New Orleans, maintenance of the levees is erratic. State and federal agencies maintain about one-third of them, but the rest are under the authority of numerous delta reclamation districts. Meanwhile, builders put up more homes in flood-prone areas; for example, the delta town of Lathrop plans to grow from 12,000 to 80,000 residents over the next quarter-century. There they will be hostages to levees folding under natural pressures-or unnatural ones. A terrorist's well-placed truck bomb could cost many lives and do millions of dollars in damage.

Southern California's water supply could be protected by building a canal to bring water from the Sacramento River to the southern part of the state without having to send it through the readily flooded delta. But Californians in 1982 voted not to spend money on building the Peripheral Canal, since they expected the federal government to pay for it. A quarter of a century later, the pipeline is still not built.

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