This Date in UCSF History: 50-50 odds of Massive Earthquake in 10 Years

Friday, April 8, 2022

Originally published on April 10, 1980.

“Odds of 50-50 for a major earthquake in the next 10 years are by no means too great. One might argue that the likelihood is even greater.”

While no one should plan on owning beachfront property in Bakersfield at this point, these words of UC Berkeley’s Bruce Bolt and Stanford’s Richard Janhs in a recently released study of “California’s Earthquake Hazard” might start Californians’ hearts palpitating.

Analyzing the historic and geological record of the last 1,500 years, and factoring in the unrelieved build-up in strain along the San Andreas fault during the last 28 years, Bolt and Jahns conclude that California is “due” or even “overdue” for an earthquake greater than seven on the Richter scale.

The Great Quake of 1906 was 8.3 in magnitude, releasing over 10,000 times the energy of the January roller derby centered at Livermore. UCSF Disaster Drill But life goes on in the face of expected disaster.

On April 18, UCSF students, employees, and volunteers will have a chance to participate in a statewide disaster drill, which will be in response to an imaginary earthquake of — you guessed it — 8.3 on the Richter scale.

All the San Francisco hospitals and emergency services including UCSF’s will attempt to respond to the “quake” in as realistic a way as possible.

At 11 a.m. on that day, approximately 250 “external casualties” victims of flying glass, toppled walls, downed electric lines, etc., will begin pouring into the Primary Triage Site (Medical Sciences Building lobby), to be sorted according to their prognosis and medical problems.

About 100 casualties will be judged minor injuries and escorted to the Ambulatory

Care Center “walking wounded” treatment site. About 25 patients, severely disturbed emotionally by the experience, will be deemed well medically and shunted to Langley-Porter for Psychiatric treatment.

The remaining casualties will be sorted quickly into four other groups.

An “Expectant Area” will be filled with patients expected to die, who will be made comfortable by nurses, a chaplain, and a social worker as the aftershocks rumble through the campus.

An “Immediate Care” area will be designated for patients suffering from heart attacks, arterial bleeding, or respiratory difficulty.

Others, in need of medical or surgical attention -of a serious, but not immediate nature, will be sent to the cafeteria, where they will again be assessed by medical personnel there.

Once in this centralized place, they will be routed to x-ray, the operating room, or to a nursing unit for additional treatment.

Still another group will be Dead on Arrival and will be put in the morgue.

The drill will further simulate an actual earthquake by involving the National Guard, 20 of whom will be triaged, with the six most seriously injured being transported by ambulance to a Field Hospital in Golden Gate Park.

The Field Hospital will serve as a helicopter evacuation site as well, to relieve the pressure on the City’s strained medical centers in the event of the Big One.

Also at UCSF, the campus will be asked to respond to a gas and fire explosion in the ACC building, with 10 seriously-injured patients (burns, toxic glass inhalation, glass lacerations).

Finally, internal and external communications will be interrupted during the drill, and anxious family members will besiege the triage and Emergency Room areas.

The April 18 Disaster Drill in San Francisco comes on the heels of four minor earthquakes in the Bay Area over the last year, and amidst growing criticism of the utter lack of preparedness, meager funds, and generalized apathy which has been the City’s plan up to this point.

“Our biggest problem is one of attitude,” said Phillip Day, director of S.F.s Office of Emergency Services (DES) in a recent interview with San Francisco magazine. “San Francisco has done nothing at the top level. We haven’t spent any money to speak of on disaster planning for years. By law, city officials have a responsibility to not neglect this business, and I think we have.”

The OES budget, according to Day, is “around $200,000, less than what the dog pound gets.”

Other City departments are similarly strapped by lack of funds and understaffing. The parapet section of the Bureau of Building Inspection, which has the job of citing rooftop/and wall ornaments that might fall on your head during a quake, has only three staff members, and has examined 1,600 buildings so far.

But in the Tenderloin and Chinatown alone, there are 10,000 buildings that might be potential earthquake hazards, according to one of the agency’s civil engineers.

“At the current rate, the review process will take 70 years,” he said.

More potential hazards crop up as one looks around “the city that waits to die,” as the 8.8.C. labelled it in a television documentary on earthquakes a few years ago. Hi

ghrises built on mud fill have yet to be tested by a major quake, and the fire department concedes that it is ill-prepared to cope with a big quake.

“Response time will be very slow,” Fire Chief Andy Casper told San Francisco magazine in March, “and our fire department probably won’t be able to respond to some calls. If fire starts, they’ll spread because of the extent of wood frame construction in the city. We anticipate we’ll have to give up sections of the city to fire.”

Compounding the problem is that 60 per cent of S.F.s firefighters and police live outside the city, and no agreement has been reached with the State OES on a plan to ferry these workers in by helicopter.

Despite the April 18 simulation, criticism of disaster medical planning remains. Deficient communications, debris in the streets, and snarled traffic would likely bring ambulance operations to a halt in the first hours after the shock.

“People are going to have to be responsible for their own health care for the first nine to 12 hours,” states Dr. Donald Trunkey, chief of surgery and trauma at San Francisco General Hospital and a member of the state OES for disaster medical planning.

He adds, “If people really want to prepare for an earthquake, they’ll take a basic First Aid course. Because they won’t be able to rely on anyone else to treat injuries.”

The Bolt-Jahns study is also concerned about disaster planning in California.

Taking up the question of building codes, the authors report that during the 5.6 Santa Barbara shock of August 1978, which lasted 2 to 3 seconds and caused over $10 million damage, a number of buildings constructed after 1952 (when the latest strict building standards were imposed) were severely damaged.

“This refutes any idea that only old buildings from another era should be considered in assessing earthquake dangers in California,” they wrote.

“Building codes and building designs were not invariably followed, and errors seem to have been made in construction.”

The 1906 earthquake here; by comparison lasted about 40 seconds, not including aftershocks. Bolt and Jahns applaud efforts at public education and disaster drills such as the one planned here on April 18.

With the increasing odds of a major quake in the next ten years, they argue that more funds should be spent on preparedness, as only two percent of the state’s seismic safety expenditures are allocated in this fashion today.

Gazing out at the Farallon Islands, about 30 kilometers offshore from S.F., they observe a northwest movement of two to three inches a year (with respect to the “fixed” point, Mt. Diablo).

“This movement was going on before the 1906 event and has continued since leaving no doubt that strain is building up in the intervening crustal rocks, somewhat like the tightening of a watch spring when a watch is wound,” they wrote in August 1979.

“A sudden slip will have to occur along one of the main faults in the Bay region in order to relieve the growing strain,” they concluded matter-of-factly.