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Oops — They're Screwed

Date: 15 February, 2009

By: Chief

Imageity planners, one would hope and think, would do just that — think. Apparently in San Francisco that is not necessarily the case.

After Hurricane Katrina and Rita decided to drop by and pay the Gulf Coast a visit, and in the course of doing so rearranged most of the Gulf much to the chagrin of basically everybody, the big talk of various cities, counties and states have been along the lines of 'are we prepared' for a disaster? The answer to that question by and large is — no.

I am sure the 'no' comes as no surprise to most folks. However, what is slightly amusing is what city is completely screwed come some kind of disaster, natural or man made. And the answer to that humdinger is none other than the City of San Francisco.

The city by the bay has a long and not so very illustrious history of earthquakes. Indeed, so does the entire East and South bay areas. The last super-duper quake or shaker was the 1906 quake that did extreme damage to the city. And what the quake did not destroy the fires that followed most certainly did.

San Francisco is built on hills which overlook the bay. Great views. Housing prices so high that they have passed the Moon and are on their way to Mars. Because of its location San Francisco has a major problem of ways to get into and out of the city. Three of the major arteries are bridges, the:

This situation leaves only the peninsula for ingress and egress. Highways 280, 101 and 1. And yes, there are the trans-bay ferrys. Come a major shake and bake it is quite possible for all routes to become either unsafe, unstable for use or out right destroyed. This would leave the city on its own for a considerable length of time until amphibious ships could arrive with the proper equipment and manpower. This could conceivably take a couple of weeks or longer.

In order to give you an example of what an earthquake can do, the 1989 Loma Prieta quake was a 6.7 - 7.1 on the Richter Scale and its epicenter was approximately 70 miles South - Southwest of San Francisco. The quake lasted all of about 15 seconds. Yet it flattened the Cypress/Nimitz (double decker) Freeway, damaged the Oakland Bay Bridge (it was closed for approximately one month), damaged Highways 17, 101 and 280. That is not to mention what it did to Santa Cruz, California.

The 1906 earthquake which destroyed San Francisco measured approximately 8.0 - 8.25 on the Richter Scale and lasted for approximately 45 seconds. Within minutes fires broke out which lasted until they burned themselves out several days later. When it was over 490 city blocks (25,000 buildings) were flat-out gone. The death toll was around 3,000. It has been guess-timated that the epicenter was fairly close — just off the coast of Daly City, California. A mere 8 miles Southwest of San Francisco.

In under a minute a city was flattened. Earthquakes are nothing to laugh about.

What is really nasty for the citizens of the city is the fire fighting equipment. Particularly the fire hydrants. The fire hydrants in San Francisco are a non standard size.

That means, making the grandiose assumption that should a road survive a major quake and or a bridge survive the shaker, any fire fighting assistance from outside the San Francisco area would be mostly rendered moot. Equipment from another city or county could not hook up to the San Francisco fire hydrants because the connections are a different size than those used throughout the rest of California. Indeed, throughout the rest of the country. What a bunch of dunderheads.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper:

"It has been [several] years since a similar predicament contributed to the spread of the Oakland hills fire, in which 25 people died and 2,699 homes were lost. After dozens of firefighters from surrounding agencies found that their hoses couldn't be attached to Oakland's hydrants, state lawmakers required that all cities in California adopt a standard connection size by 1994."

However, San Francisco, in what could only be described as a hallucinogenic stupor (quoting the San Francisco Chronicle):

"[S]uccessfully lobbied to be exempted from the law, and city fire officials say they have no plans to change their hydrants to fit the state's standard size. Instead, they are following a model that caused problems in the 1991 Oakland fire, planning to hand out adapters to out-of-town fire crews so they can connect their standard 2 1/2-inch hoses to San Francisco's 3-inch hydrant openings."

Well gee whiz boys and girls isn't that just wonderful? I think that is one of the most idiotic ideas I have ever heard of. Figures it is from San Francisco. The city, in case of disaster, intends to hand out adapters like lolly pops to out of town fire fighters. Christ, that idea redefines stupidity.

The city, to its credit, did give out adapters to neighboring departments in Alameda, San Mateo and Marin counties and to the state Office of Emergency Services. In case of a major fire, the city has another 100 adapters it keeps at a fire station that it would make available at a staging area to visiting firefighters.

And if the fire station that holds all the 100 extra adapters is flattened by the quake or consumed by a subsequent fire, what then? Do the responding out of town fire crews even know where the fire station is or how to get there? Can those crews even get to that station? Additionally Alameda and Marin departments would have to utilize the Oakland Bay and Golden Gate bridges respectively to get to San Francisco. That is a real shaky situation in-and-of itself (pun intended). The San Mateo department could use Highway 280 (Skyline) or Highway 101, if either survived. You are talking a real bad situation that is going to be made an awful lot worse.

To add insult to injury, the system, according to the S.F. Fire Department, is the only one of its kind in the country. Quoting the San Francisco Chronicle:

"The high-pressure hydrants require a control valve that is used only in San Francisco. So, out-of-town fire crews would need an adapter and this valve to make their hoses compatible. Officials say the system is so specialized and technical that it is too dangerous for visiting fire crews to operate anyway, and that replacing just one of the hydrants could cost as much as $150,000" (emphasis added).

That quote is telling me that out of area fire fighters need not even bother attempting to help out the San Francisco Fire Department. Their system is, after all, a "one of a kind" within the country. Hence, even federal fire crews could not assist no matter how badly they would want to.

There are other problems, the answers to which cannot be known until after a catastrophic earthquake strikes San Francisco. At a bare bones minimum these are:

Some rather important questions would you not agree?

There are approximately 1,700 fire and emergency personnel assigned to the San Francisco Fire Department which covers a 47.5 square mile area and the San Francisco International Airport. There are 48 fire stations located within the city or basically one fire station per square mile. That sounds great and I am sure that under normal situations it works really great. But we are not talking about a normal situation whatsoever. Additionally, if you have ever been to San Francisco, you should have noticed the humongous number of wooden framed structures packed butthole to bellybutton within the city limits.

I'll tell you one thing, when fighting any kind of a disaster there is never enough — of anything. Manpower, equipment, you name it. There just ain't ever enough. Hopefully San Francisco will not have to find out the hard way. I, for one, am not going to hold my breath.

It seems to me that San Francisco city officials, along with their fire chief, are playing the ultimate game of high stakes poker. They are betting the lives of the residents of the city and their own crews that they are right and everybody else is wrong.

It is a bet that I am not willing to take.

[Ed. note: Story update. The high pressure fire hydrants were built, believe it or not, in the year 1889. The entire high pressure system, all 135 miles of it was completed in 1913. Here are a couple of links for your reading pleasure: First, the San Francisco Fire Department website and secondly the Earthquake Safety and Emergency Response bond website. The city bond for system upgrades and repairs is for approximately $400 million buckaroos.

I would whole heartedly suggest y'all read them — just for the history if for no other reason.]

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