Photograph by Angelo Carconi, EPA
Watching the news last week was difficult. Natural disasters have wreaked havoc across the world, between floods and fires in the US and the 6.3-magnitude earthquake in Italy. Living in the Bay Area can make us hyper-aware of the danger of natural disasters, and our hearts go out to the families who’ve lost loved ones, their homes, or both.
San Francisco native Tom Torriglia moved to Italy three years ago. He has seen this type of tragedy before. "Having gone through the '89 earthquake here and then living in Italy with earthquakes there, it's just a horrible feeling. I can't imagine what the people are going through."
Human beings adapt. We learn from disaster, and we plan and prepare with the knowledge we gain. We respect the victims by pulling together and using our brains to improve our situation. It can be hard to visualize disaster striking where we are, but living here means being smart enough to bring that light jacket out, even when the sun is bright- we can’t see the wind and fog yet, but we know it’s coming.
Where’s The Danger?
The Italy earthquake “is a difficult and powerful reminder that we also face earthquake risk here”, said Red Cross spokeswoman Monique Gugaw. Italy’s 6.2 magnitude struck at 3:36 am, and was followed by a string of powerful aftershocks that flattened buildings and structures. Places where picturesque churches, lovely homes and neat storefronts stood days ago are now just a heap of rubble. Before and after pictures show literal tons of debris piled up over building foundations.
The same forces threaten here in the Bay via the San Andreas, Hayward, Calaveras faults and hundreds of others, making our region one of the most dangerous seismic regions in the world. Only our earthquakes are bigger and potentially more dangerous. For context, the 7.8+ magnitude earthquake experts warn of here would give off more than 200 times times stronger than Italy’s 6.3 did. It’s a scary prospect.
A 2015 study estimated that the Bay Area has a nearly three-in-four chance of experiencing a deadly earthquake in the next 28 years. Many significant "lifelines" - BART's tunnels under the bay and through the Berkeley hills, the Golden Gate Bridge, highways, local roads and utility distribution lines - have yet to be upgraded. Many Bay Area cities still have soft-story buildings, or weak first floors that serve as parking garages, that need to be seismically bolstered. Even more concerning, the majority of households in the Bay still don’t have earthquake kits in their homes.
A Lesson in Preparedness
It’s easy to think that California’s more modern buildings would better survive the shaking, but seismologists and structural engineers say that many buildings across Northern California wouldn’t survive the 6.3 quake that hit Italy last week. The structural flaws in those ancient stone buildings isn’t so different from our unreinforced brick buildings built before 1933.
The California Seismic Safety Commission’s Structural Engineer Kit Miyamoto says, “They are unbelievably dangerous buildings”. She has visited Italy to study the earthquake damage. “The things that we see [in Italy], there will be similar things that we see here.”
Italy’s earthquake also damaged brittle concrete buildings built in the 1960s and 1970s, says Gian Michele Calvi, structural design professor at the Institute for Advanced Study of Pavia. Hundreds of similar buildings exist across California, and most of them are unretrofitted. Calvi went on to describe one town she saw were there wasn’t a single building safe enough to set up an emergency command post.
There was one exception. Norcia, a town near the epicenter, saw no deaths, said Paolo Bazzurro, professor of structural engineering at the Institute for Advanced Studies of Pavia. “I heard there was not even a single injury.” The town had been struck by a moderate earthquake in 1997, and so people prepared themselves after being reminded by mother nature what can happen.
It’s been 27 years since our last major earthquake, so a generation has come of age without earthquake experience. But we can choose to be smart enough to avoid calamity. Instead of waiting for our own earthquake to strike, we can honor those that died by learning from their misfortune and preparing now- we owe it to ourselves and our families.
Self-Sufficiency the Key to Prepare
When asked about emergency and earthquake preparedness, President Obama cautioned that “Government plays a vital role, but it is every citizen’s responsibility to be prepared for a disaster.” Especially with our disaster response agencies underfunded and undermanned, it’s crucial for our whole region that individual homes prepare a plan and the tools to survive after a major event.
Emergency agencies ask that every household prepare an earthquake kit packed to get your family through at least the first few days after an emergency. This needs to include food and water, communication tools (like a hand-crank radio), light, shelter and warmth, and tools built for emergencies. We've written a guide on how to build your own earthquake kit- check it out HERE.
We sell Earthquake Bags, so it’s obvious we think preparing is essential. We are happy to provide the best kits available if you can’t build your own, and we've donated hundreds by donating $10 for every bag sold in August to the Italian Red Cross relief efforts. But more than anything, we want to make sure every one of our neighbors has the food, water and tools to be self-sufficient after a major earthquake, so please buy or build your own!
“What people really need to be thinking about is how to be as self-sufficient as possible,” said the Chief Hazard Geologist at the Department of Natural Resources. “It’s very fair to point at what’s happened with Hurricane Sandy. You need to have a plan and be ready to be an island unto yourself.”