At precisely 5:13 a.m. on Tuesday, 100 years to the minute after the start of a catastrophe that has become the seminal event in San Francisco history, silence fell over Lotta’s Fountain at Market and Kearny streets.
The moment offered a pause for reflection for the large throng gathered there, just as the recent weeks leading up to the 100th anniversary commemoration of the Great Earthquake and Fire have given us a chance to reflect on the disaster.
The parades and solemn remembrances have passed, and the stories of the quake again will be relegated to the history books, but the quiet, looming threat of another massive earthquake does not subside. Deep under the earth’s surface, in ways scientists still cannot predict or completely explain, the tectonic plates that wrecked San Francisco a century ago still groan and shift. Someday, a great earthquake will occur again, very possibly in our lifetimes, and the nagging suspicion persists that we are not ready for it.
Recent weeks brought a flurry of new earthquake studies and estimates, and the predictions are staggering: A quake the magnitude of the 1906 temblor would leave hundreds of thousands homeless. It would close highways and bridges for days or even weeks. BART’s Transbay Tube could be closed for years due to extensive damage. Hundreds of thousands of homes, which despite ample warnings have not received the costly seismic retrofitting that would brace them, would suffer serious damage, leading to a death toll in the thousands. The total cost would likely exceed $150 billion.
It was known for years that New Orleans’ levee system was inadequate, and yet little was done. Hurricanes, at least, offer some warning. Earthquakes offer no suchchance for evacuations; aid would be slow in coming, with residents forced to rely on themselves for days or weeks after a disaster. And yet only a small percentage of San Francisco residents have enough food, water and emergency supplies to survive.
City officials have made good strides to prepare for a disaster, including creating a plan to shelter more than 50,000 residents if needed. There are still troubling gaps in our emergency response system, however. A citywide public warning system, for example, is still not fully functioning due to technical problems, and a permanent radio communications system to connect all emergency response workers is not ready. With the passing of the 100th anniversary, the danger is that momentum will stall and disaster preparedness will be relegated to a lower place on our civic priority list.
San Franciscans exhibited great courage and dedication after the 1906 earthquake, and there is no doubt that we will again perform admirably when the next one strikes. But now is the time to become fully prepared, in the borrowed time granted to us by nature.