Is San Francisco Ready?

Taking a cue from Katrina, a West Coast mayor exhorts his citizens to sharpen their disaster skills

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ARNOLD GENTHE / GETTY

1906: Crumbling buildings line a street and smoke rises in the background after the San Francisco earthquake

As they beheld the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, residents of San Francisco had a sense of foreboding about their own proud and beautiful city. Ever since 1906, when a massive earthquake along the San Andreas Fault killed thousands and left an estimated 225,000 people homeless, San Franciscans have lived with the knowledge that one day another cataclysmic temblor will rock the ground beneath their feet, toppling houses and apartment buildings, severing water and power lines and rendering roads and highways impassable.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom quickly decided that the shocking scenes of Katrina provided a teachable moment. Newsom unveiled a long-planned public-service advertising campaign last week that will amplify what may be Katrina's most important take-home message: survivors of a major emergency will probably need to fend for themselves for the first few days after calamity strikes. The goal is to get as many San Franciscans as possible to assemble--and keep current--a basic emergency kit, including a flashlight, a transistor radio, spare batteries, canned goods and, above all, enough water to last at least three days. "If Hurricane Katrina didn't prove it to you, I don't know what will," says Newsom. "When disaster strikes, we're all going to be on our own for a minimum of 72 hours."

The odds are high that the nearly 750,000 people living in the city today will be pulling out those emergency kits, say researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey. The region around the San Francisco Bay is riven by faults, including the San Andreas to the west of the city and, to the east, the Hayward Fault, which geophysicists consider even more likely to rupture. Over the next 30 years, scientists estimate, the Bay Area has a greater than 60% chance of being hit by a damaging earthquake, defined as an earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or higher. And while a replay of the 1906 earthquake is less likely during that time frame--the 1906 quake is thought to have had a magnitude of about 7.9, making it 60 times as powerful as a magnitude 6.7--it's not inconceivable. In now eerie echoes from early 2001, some experts recall hearing officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency list a strong earthquake in California as among the most likely catastrophic disasters that could strike the U.S.--along with a terrorist attack in New York City and a major hurricane hitting New Orleans.

Just how prepared is San Francisco to weather the worst? Newsom told reporters last week that the city has made progress since he took office in early 2004. Among other things, the city has revived its disaster-planning council and regularly stages emergency-response trial runs. It has installed 65 civil defense--style sirens equipped with loudspeakers for broadcasting information about hazards and evacuation routes to outlying neighborhoods. And it is stepping up the training of thousands of civilians in disaster medicine and other emergency skills so they can serve as geographically dispersed disaster workers.

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