Opinion: Improving hazard resilience in the Bay Area

Even while struggling to stem coronavirus, we must prepare for the next natural disaster

By Laura Tam and Laurie A. Johnson

We all want and deserve to be safe in our homes and communities. Yet for those of us who live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area, our home is a paradox. The Bay Area is both a treasured place and a hazardous environment where flooding, wildfires and earthquakes are common today. These hazards are likely to become more frequent, larger and more damaging in the future as climate change puts the region’s people, built environment and natural habitats at risk. Without mitigation, the impact of these hazards will only increase as the region grows. This impact could disproportionately affect those who are more exposed and vulnerable to various risks — and who may have fewer resources to help them cope.

The coronavirus is, and should be, everyone’s vital priority right now but climate change, earthquake and fire risk is still there in the background with events even likely this year. The worst thing that could happen is multiple simultaneous disasters, so let’s plan for the ones we can see coming.

SPUR has just released a new report that aims to do just that. Safety First: Improving Hazard Resilience in the Bay Area, builds on our extensive work in earthquake and climate resilience and supports the SPUR Regional Strategy, a 50-year vision for how the Bay Area of 2070 can be more equitable, sustainable and resilient. The recommendations in this report address two key questions:

  • 1. How can we mitigate risk from hazards and secure safety as the Bay Area adds people, jobs and housing over the next 50 years?
  • 2. As a region exposed to multiple natural hazards, what can we do together to improve community resilience that we cannot achieve as individual cities and counties acting alone?

Safety First characterizes the Bay Area’s changing risks from floods, fires and earthquakes and describes the potential equity impacts of worsening hazards. It also looks at how the region manages hazards today. SPUR found that most of the policy tools the region has to manage hazards and assure safety are not designed for changing risks or for a growing urban and interdependent region. One community’s actions to increase resilience — or its failure to act — can affect its neighbors and the region as a whole. How one community prepares for wildfire affects the fire safety of all adjacent communities. What one community chooses to do about earthquake-vulnerable buildings and infrastructure affects surrounding neighborhoods and the economy. How one community alters its shoreline to manage sea level rise affects flooding for its neighbors. Failing to plan regionally means that resilience investments might not have the expected payoff or safety benefits, or they might not improve conditions for the community at large.

SPUR makes 12 policy recommendations for how the Bay Area can improve data and information gathering, codes and standards, community planning and funding for multi-hazard resilience. These include developing local disaster frameworks in every city and county to help insure that local jurisdictions are ready to manage recovery following a major disaster; adopting a statewide functional recovery building standard so that more buildings will be usable and easily repaired after a disaster; require cities and counties to inventory and screen buildings for vulnerability to wildfires, flooding and earthquakes in areas of known risk; and change zoning codes to prevent further development in high-hazard areas that are significantly vulnerable to fire, liquefaction and sea level rise, with priority consideration in those areas where multiple hazards overlap.

The recommendations are directed at state, regional and local agencies because better hazard resilience is a function across all scales of governance. We need to take action at all levels of government — local, regional and state — to secure a reliable, resilient future for the Bay Area. If we are successful, we will ensure a safer Bay Area for everyone who is already here — and everyone who is yet to come.

Laura Tam is the former sustainable development policy Director at SPUR. Laurie Johnson is an urban planner and President of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute.

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