Bay Area gets ready for the next disaster

Bay Area emergency officials have used more than $130 million in funds from the federal government to shore up issues laid bare by the deadly temblor that rocked the Bay Area on Oct. 17, 1989.

Since the 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake, leaders in cities around San Francisco Bay have made vast strides toward being ready for the next large-scale disaster by establishing communication between emergency responders, preparing centers for victims of a disaster and pushing for people to prepare their homes for a calamity.

One move has been a major public relations push to teach people to get ready to survive without basic services such as water, power and food. There were widespread power outages for three days following the earthquake.

Since there can be no guarantee that services such as water, electricity and sewage can be immediately restored after a disaster, officials have pushed for people to be ready to do without them. San Francisco officials warn that residents should be prepared to be without any aid for 72 hours. San Mateo County officials say everyone should plan to be self-sufficient for up to one week.

“The Department of Homeland Security is looking more at making sure locals are ready,” said Vicki Hennessy, acting director of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, which oversees disaster planning for The City.

Radiating outward from the individual, the first government response to a disaster will likely come from local municipalities, according to officials.

Former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos told The Examiner that he had tossed aside the disaster manual after the 1989 temblor rocked the region. Today, however, city leaders are exhaustively trained and prepared to deal with catastrophes, according to Hennessy.

“Now we have plans and everybody knows what their roles are,” she said. “We also have much better infrastructure in our emergency operations center, so we have the infrastructure in place, as well as having the people in place.”

Since 1989, efforts to improve the disaster preparedness of local agencies includes the San Francisco Emergency Communications Center on Turk Street in the Tenderloin neighborhood. That’s where high-ranking officials will gather after an earthquake or other large disaster. The center was rebuilt in 1999 to withstand a major temblor.

After a disaster, the new center will offer a place for police, fire and other vital emergency services personnel to gather and lay out their plans to respond based on the needs of the situation. The mayor and other top city officials will also be able to communicate with each other through satellite phones or special, red landline phones in their homes, offices and at the emergency center.

Officials will coordinate street cleanups, emergency health care, sewer and water main repairs, and other tasks with police and fire officials.

In San Mateo County, there are plans to set up an emergency response center that will coordinate with the various cities on the Peninsula, according to Bill O’Callahan, a supervisor in San Mateo County’s Office of Emergency Services.

Plans in San Francisco have also been put in place for emergency shelters to be open with cots, kitchens and medical provisions for anyone who is newly homeless. Residents will be notified of shelter openings through AM radio broadcasts and community hubs, which are likely to be formed inside branch libraries, according to Hennessy.

In terms of communication, there’s been improvements in communication between emergency responders, though gaps still exist. During the Loma Prieta earthquake, fire departments and other first responders such as the police could not communicate because of jammed radio signals.

Though investment from the federal government and the switch to digital television started to clear valuable communication for emergency responders to reach one another after a disaster, emergency responders in cities and counties across the Bay Area cannot currently communicate with one another on the radios they have.

Along with preparing to keep people safe in their homes and communities, plans have been put in place for evacuating large populations in cities.

If there were to be an emergency so large that swaths of any Bay Area city needed to be taken to safer locations, the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority could ferry people across the water.

That plan, however, shows one shortcoming in the disaster plans across the region. Though thousands of people could be taken to safety on ferries, the infrastructure of the region would not withstand the influx of people if several Bay Area bridges were to collapse.

Digital switch boosted communications

Knocking analog television off the air freed up space for emergency officials in the Bay Area to communicate after an earthquake or other large-scale disaster.

San Francisco’s emergency radio system became jammed after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, prompting the Fire Department to recommend expanding the number of emergency radio frequencies available for use during disasters.

Additionally, as the Bay Area grew, its public safety agencies adopted different communication technologies that broadcast information through different radio frequencies, according to Michelle Geddes, a San Francisco Department of Emergency Management program manager.

As a result, San Francisco officials rely on complicated patching tools requiring extensive training and experience to radio the California Highway Patrol or counterparts in Marin County, according to Geddes.

To improve emergency communications, the federal government is freeing up radio frequencies for public safety agencies that were previously used for analog television broadcasts.

San Francisco expects to start using the 700-megahertz frequency by June, in part by drawing on a $14.9 million federal grant awarded to Bay Area governments to improve interoperability of communications, according to Geddes.

The money is being spent on new radios, networking equipment and mountaintop antennas, she said. — John Upton

Roads closed

A major earthquake along the San Andreas fault in the Bay Area could damage more than a thousand roadways, which would severely limit travel around the region.

County    Roads
Alameda    146
Contra Costa    30
Marin    77
Napa     3
San Francisco    429
San Mateo    315
Santa Clara    250
Solano    6
Sonoma    75
Total    1,332

Source: Association of Bay Area Governments

How to prepare in the event of a disaster

Officials who deal with disaster preparedness warn that people should be ready to live without basic services — including grocery stores, water and power — for between three days and one week following an earthquake.

Survival supplies

  • At least 1 gallon of water per person, per day
  • Commonly eaten food that doesn’t require cooking or water, such as peanut butter, breakfast cereal, nuts and canned fruit
  • Utensils, plates, bowls and a can opener
  • First-aid kit
  • Heavy work gloves
  • Blankets, warm clothes and rain gear
  • Items for personal hygiene
  • Unscented liquid household bleach and an eyedropper for water purification
  • Duct tape, plastic bags, buckets and sheeting
  • Tools, including a utility knife
  • Bag in which to carry emergency items if needed
  • Supplies for pets, which are not allowed in earthquake shelters

Planning now for the aftermath

  • Designate an out-of-area contact person and provide them with the contact details of people who will want to be informed about your situation following an earthquake; keep this person’s phone number safe; long-distance phone service is often restored more quickly than local service
  • Store copies of passports, driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, wills, insurance information and other important documents in a safe-deposit box or with a trusted friend or relative
  • Document and photograph valuables and store copies of the information
    off-site with other important documents



For The Examiner's complete Loma Prieta anniversary coverage, go to


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