San Francisco Considers Preparedness after Katrina

In New Orleans, the failure of its emergency systems has prompted some U.S. cities to reevaluate their own disaster plans. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom talks about his city's plans for a major earthquake.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina has some asking if other American cities are as prepared as they should be for natural disasters. San Francisco, for one, rests on top of major fault lines. The San Andreas fault was responsible for what was, until Katrina, America's worst natural disaster. It triggered the 1906 earthquake that destroyed San Francisco and killed thousands. It also crippled the Bay Bridge in 1989 and geologists say it's not a question of if there will be another earthquake as big as the 1906 quake, but when that big one will hit. Gavin Newsom is the mayor of San Francisco.

And welcome.

Mayor GAVIN NEWSOM (San Francisco): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: If you had to just check off very quickly the sort of worst-case things that would happen during the scenario of the big one...

Mayor NEWSOM: Well, we...

MONTAGNE: ...what would they be?

Mayor NEWSOM: Well, based upon our inability to retrofit our two largest bridges, the Bay Bridge and, of course, the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge, we would assume both bridges would be inoperable, leaving us with just one access point to exit and/or enter San Francisco and that would be to the south. We, of course, would see, as we saw in 1906, fires. But the bottom line is we cannot predict what, in fact, would happen, but we play scenarios out on a consistent basis every month. But New Orleans was doing the same thing. They had emergency operations plans. We have emergency operations plans. They talked a good game. We, of course, try to talk a good game. Nothing substitutes reality and we hope to learn a lot of lessons from Katrina.

MONTAGNE: San Francisco is a city of old buildings. Something like eight out of 10, or a little more than that...

Mayor NEWSOM: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...built before 1970 when modern building codes were put into effect and retrofitting got going. Does that mean that the majority of the buildings aren't earthquake-resistant? I mean, does it mean that San Francisco General Hospital, which is very old and in very bad shape, will fall down in an earthquake?

Mayor NEWSOM: Well, in fact, we're in the process right now of putting together a bond to retrofit our emergency room at San Francisco General Hospital. It absolutely is not seismically safe and we've been putting together a plan that will be close to $1 billion. And we're bringing that to the voters as early as June of next year.

MONTAGNE: That can't be right.

Mayor NEWSOM: Well, it's...

MONTAGNE: Is it?

Mayor NEWSOM: Right now, it's--we're projecting $840 million with escalation in looking at 2010 construction costs.

MONTAGNE: Oh!

Mayor NEWSOM: It's phenomenal costs retrofitting the hospital and emergency room, making sure basically that it's rebuilt to today's seismic standards. Our own City Hall has been lifted off its foundation and is on large rubber balls, and we've begun to retrofit other institutions in San Francisco in a like-minded way.

MONTAGNE: One thing about San Francisco in particular is I gather that about half the police and the firefighters live outside the city. So if the two bridges into the city are out, that--what does that do to your first responders?

Mayor NEWSOM: That's why we have deci--you're 100 percent right. They can't afford to live here, many of them. So you're right. They live across our bay and outside the borders of the city. So a consequence of that is we have aligned a strategy to have real first responders, and that's real people, neighbors. And we've put together a Web site called 72hours.org, the notion being that for 72 hours, as exampled by Katrina in the Gulf--72 hours you're going to be on your own. Make sure you have more than just food and water, but emergency supplies and the like. People are trained in CPR and they're organizing block by block throughout San Francisco so they can truly help themselves as they wait for our police and firefighters, the state and federal government.

MONTAGNE: Has federal assistance from FEMA factored into San Francisco's planning? We saw in New Orleans that people were definitely on their own for three days, four days, and it was--with real terrible consequences.

Mayor NEWSOM: Yeah, it's inexcusable. It's unacceptable. I think that's the biggest lesson I've learned and I think the citizens of the San Francisco Bay Area region have learned, is that the challenge of being on your own is a real challenge. And that's why my disproportionate focus, of course, is working regionally and collaboratively. But it's educating the people of San Francisco on a consistent basis that you need, as an individual, to be prepared.

MONTAGNE: In a way, it's a bit weird to be saying that the first responders weren't there, so you're the first responders. It's like saying every man, woman...

Mayor NEWSOM: For yourself.

MONTAGNE: ...or neighborhood for yourself.

Mayor NEWSOM: Yeah. It's distressing and it's dealing with the reality. If I have a Category 9 earthquake in San Francisco, this region will be devastated and on its knees. And the fact is people will not be able to be helped in those first 72 hours until we get the state and federal government's help. That's a reality and that's a reality we have to deal with.

MONTAGNE: Mayor Newsom, thank you very much for joining us.

Mayor NEWSOM: Thanks for having me on.

MONTAGNE: Gavin Newsom is the mayor of San Francisco.

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