It is funny how it is only after I return from a visit to San Francisco that I start to ponder, even worry, about the prospect of a major earthquake hitting the city.
I have recently been reading A Crack In the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 by British born but recently naturalised American, Simon Winchester, a magnificent exploration of the origins, development and aftermath of the magnitude 8.25 Earthquake and ensuing Fire that hit the city on 18th April of that year, and it set me to thinking what is increasingly fascinating me from afar.
Aside from his narrative skill, Winchester, as befits a masters graduate in geology from Oxford, is perfectly placed to explain the scientific basis for earthquakes. Irrespective of how imperfectly I understand that science, his voice is authoritative, and this paragraph in particular sends a chilling message to all those living on the San Andreas Fault, and especially in the city by the bay:
It is not a question of whether a big earthquake will occur, nor even a question of precisely where it will hit. There will be a quake, it will be considerable, it will be somewhere in the vicinity of San Francisco, it will more than likely affect the San Andreas Fault or one of its cadet branches – and it will take place, most probably before 2032. The only true unknown is the precise year, month, day and time.
The U.S. Geological Society actually issued a formal forecast in 2003. Sometime before 2032 , along one of the seven fault systems that belong to the San Andreas cluster, and which cut their way through the Bay Area, there is a machine-computed probability of 62 per cent that an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.7 or greater will strike. There will be damage and casualties “on an impressive scale”.
All those communities, not least the major city in the area, have comprehensive plans for dealing with every type of disaster, as well as providing detailed guidelines for those “authorized to know what their duties and responsibilities are in the event of the most statistically likely major disaster that is anticipated in the region – and that is a very, very large earthquake”.
And, of course, since the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 that, amongst its other effects, caused part of the upper deck of the Bay Bridge to collapse onto the lower and much of the Marina district to be destroyed, many buildings have been checked and reinforced to enable them to stand a chance when the next “big one” arrives.
That is all reassuring I’m sure. But I wonder how far the citizens of San Francisco are truly geared up to cope when it comes. I suppose if the authorities kept hammering on about it it would instill a pervading sense of paranoia that would do nobody any good. But I have rarely seen or heard any references to the subject during my trips to the city. Having said that, it has not even crossed my mind whilst staying there – though I am becoming increasingly fascinated both by the historical context and the future potential for calamity.
So does it concern me that my beloved city could be seriously damaged any moment? Of course.
Does it deter me from visiting it often, and, hopefully, more than before, in the future? Not at all.
Is there just a small part of me that hopes I am there when it happens? I think there might be (many witnesses of the 1906 quake recorded their excitement at being part of a major historical catastrophe, and more still posed for photographs amid the ruins even as their homes disintegrated).
But do I wish it? Of course not.
I know that I have a number of readers who would be directly affected by an earthquake. Do they think about it at all? Do they worry about it? Are they confident that they would know what to do if such a disaster struck?
It would be interesting to know. Answers at the bottom of this post please.