How the 1906 Quake Launched Earthquake Science One hundred years ago this week, a huge earthquake rocked San Francisco and gave birth to modern earthquake science. In a live broadcast from San Francisco's Exploratorium, guests discuss the 1906 quake and how the Bay Area will fare when another major seismic event occurs.
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How the 1906 Quake Launched Earthquake Science

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How the 1906 Quake Launched Earthquake Science

How the 1906 Quake Launched Earthquake Science

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This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. One hundred years ago this week, a huge earthquake rocked San Francisco, and the repercussions are still being felt today. Seismologists just released a new ShakeMap. That's a map showing how the earth moved in northern California in the early morning of April 18, 1906. A new book documents the damage done to San Francisco's buildings by the earthquake, and reaches a surprising conclusion that architects and engineers were designing and building structures to be earthquake-resistant even before the turn of the 20th century.

This hour, we're going to look back at the 1906 earthquake, and look ahead to how the Bay Area would fare if the big one happened today. We're broadcasting from the Exploratorium in San Francisco, which sits precariously, seismically speaking, on landfill made from the rubble of the 1906 quake, and near the site of extreme damage from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Seismologists are forecasting another big quake in northern California some time in the next 25 years, and should that come true, what kind of destruction could follow? We'll talk about it with a structural engineer.

Also, what is the region doing to prepare for this worst-case scenario? We'll hear about the state of California's emergency response plan, which is designed to kick into action within seconds of a major trembler. So, if you'd like to join our discussion, give us a call. Our number, 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. And if you're here in the audience here at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, you can step up to the microphone and tell us what's on your mind. Hopefully, in the form of a question. And if you want more information about what we're talking this hour, you can go to our website at where you'll find links to all of our topics.

Let me introduce my guests. Mary Lou Zobeck is a seismologist and the regional coordinator for the Northern California Earthquake Hazards Program at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California. Welcome back to the program Dr. Zobeck.

Dr. MARY LOU ZOBECK (Seismologist, Regional Coordinator, Northern California Earthquake Hazards Program, United States Geological Survey, Menlo Park, California): Thank you.

FLATOW: Good to have you back here. Charles Kircher is a structural engineer and a principal at Charles Kircher & Associates in Palo Alto, California. Welcome back to you, Dr. Kircher.

Dr. CHARLES KIRCHER (Structural Engineer, Principal, Charles Kircher & Associates, Palo Alto, California): Good morning, Ira.

FLATOW: Rich Eisner is the regional administrator for the coastal region in the Governor's Office of Emergency Services in Oakland. Welcome back to the program, Mr. Eisner.

Mr. RICH EISNER (Regional Administrator, Coastal Region, Governor's Office of Emergency Services, Oakland, California): Morning.

FLATOW: Good morning. And Stephen Tobriner is the author of Bracing for Disaster: Earthquake-Resistant Architecture and Engineering in San Francisco, 1838-1933, just out from Berkeley, the Bancroft Library, and the Heydey Press. He's also a professor of architectural history at the University of California at Berkeley. Welcome to the program, Dr. Tobriner.

Dr. STEPHEN TOBRINER (Author; Professor, Architectural History, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, California): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Dr. Zobeck, let me start with you. I mentioned that we're sitting on precarious ground. Correct?

Dr. ZOBECK: Absolutely.

FLATOW: Where did this rubble come from? Left over from 1906?

Dr. ZOBECK: Well actually, this part of San Francisco was a bay. It used to be a little bay -- small bay off the San Francisco Bay. And, beginning in the 1860s they started pushing the sand dunes into the bay, so they'd already started reclaiming this land, but then after the earthquake, a lot more debris, as well as more sand, was pushed into the area.

FLATOW: Hmm. You and your colleagues recreated the ground motion. Right? A simulation from the 1906 quake. Can you describe for us what actually happened in that quake, from what you can determine?

Dr. ZOBECK: Okay, what we did was we actually built a three-dimensional model of the earth's crust in all of northern California, and we put faults in it, and we put slip on the faults and, specifically, the slip we believe occurred in 1906. The earthquake originated off-shore from San Francisco, just a little bit around the bend here, about two miles off-shore. It ruptured the San Andreas Fault the entire length of the northern San Andreas from San Juan Bautiste in the south to Cape Mendocino in the north, roughly 300 miles. So, the earthquake began somewhere near the middle and ruptured in two directions. It took about 90 seconds for the earthquake to actually break along the fault its entire length, but within 30 seconds, the really strong shaking had already spread out throughout the entire Bay Area where most people lived.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. Was it a complex break? Was it a simple one? Can you describe?

Dr. ZOBECK: We now know from several lines of evidence -- and some of it was the surveying data from the time, and also what the geologists observed at the surface -- that it was a very complex break. It wasn't a uniform slip. Some parts of the fault slipped only five feet. And when I say slip, what I'm talking about is the fault movement, and the two blocks moved horizontally past one another. In other places, the slip was as high as 30 feet and, in fact, we know north of San Francisco near Point Reyes, the slip was about 30, 32 feet, and that is an area where we see some of the greatest damage. The city of Santa Rosa is sitting on a plain that's underlain by soft material, but also, the fault there slipped a lot, and the town of Santa Rosa, which is 20 miles from the fault, suffered some of the greatest damage per square area of anywhere along the quake.

FLATOW: Is it true that despite the incredible damage and the fire created here in San Francisco, that it could have been worse?

Dr. ZOBECK: Oh, absolutely, and that's what our modeling's showing us now. This was a best-case scenario for this earthquake.

FLATOW: This was the best-case scenario?

Dr. ZOBECK: Best-case scenario, at least for where the population resides. Because the earthquake began off-shore from San Francisco and ruptured away from the Bay Area in both directions -- there's energy focused in the direction of rupture -- so, that energy was focused out of the built-up area. We've now been able to run simulations starting the earthquake in other places, and if we begin in the north, you just plow all that energy into the Bay Area, and the shaking will be much more intense and really affect the urban area.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. Interesting. Steven Tobriner, in your book about the quake, you include some eye-witness accounts. Could you read for us one of those? There's one very, really dramatic one.

Dr. TOBRINER: Sure, Ira. This is an account of Dewitt Lipe(ph) who was living on Third and Market Street and those San Franciscans in the audience will know this is close to Moscone Center, and he's living in a rooming-house, a brick building five stories high. He's on the fifth story and he says this as looking west.

As I looked out on this vista, everything was swaying and first among these swaying structures, to attract my particular attention, was a tall, steel smokestack over the Call power plant which toppled down within the first few seconds. Almost immediately after these incidents, the great chimney of the San Francisco Gas & Electric Company's power plant, which had been swaying like a whip, broke off about at the middle and the top went crashing down on the powerhouse itself, which caused a terrific explosion as the debris smashed the steam pipes and boilers beneath. About this time, the plastering in my room began to fall in, and the earthquake seemed to be pumping up and down. The place was shaking and showering plaster. I saw the swaying steeple of St. Patrick's church give way and fall down en masse toward Mission Street. I then heard a tremendous noise, and thinking it was the Call building, I looked to my right toward Market Street, but the structure was still standing and, apparently, uninjured.

FLATOW: Wow. So how much of the damage to the city was caused by the rolling of the earth itself and how much by the fires that followed?

Dr. TOBRINER: Well, you know, there's been a lot of talk recently about the city's intentional dismissal of earthquake damage. But, in fact, the earthquake damage accounted for 10 to 15 percent -- 10, really, is the number -- 10 percent of the total damage to the city. The fire did 90 percent of the damage to the city.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. And so there are lots of structures still left from that?

Dr. TOBRINER: Absolutely. If you look at the photographs -- you have to remember that the photographers ran out -- it took them a couple of hours to really start taking pictures, but when they did, they were taking pictures of catastrophe, and that is, for them, the most dramatic pictures. So, you have dramatic pictures of some collapses and lots of pictures of fire. As you look at their fire pictures, you see in the foreground many buildings, thousands of buildings, that have not collapsed. And if they haven't collapsed, we presume that the people inside were generally safe. Of course there are internal problems. Chimneys could have fallen and so forth.

FLATOW: Well, why did they not collapse? Were they built not to collapse?

Dr. TOBRINER: Well, what is so fascinating is that 40 years before the earthquake of 1906, after the many earthquakes of the 1860s, starting in 1865 and 1868 we had two very bad earthquakes, engineers and architects, inventors and citizens themselves became very aware of earthquake danger and actually decided to build buildings that would be earthquake resistant. They realized that wood buildings were earthquake resistant. They were cheap, but they figured they were earthquake resistant as well, and even the rich folks built their buildings of wood because of that. And then in brick buildings, they developed all kinds of ways of tying these buildings together. And many of the successes in the earthquake of 1906 were due to this reinforcement that they put in them. And last, the steel-frame buildings, which came to this city in the 1880s. We know that the first building put up, the old Chronicle building, put up by Burnham and Root, the famous Chicago team, was built to be earthquake resistant. They said it, they actually wrote it. This building is built not like Eastern buildings, but built to be earthquake resistant. They did their very best, and some of their techniques were terrific. Of course, they're not, you know, they're not the same techniques that we'd use today.

FLATOW: Uh huh. Some of the major buildings that survived were what, that we'd still see around today?

Dr. TOBRINER: Well, the Call Building, which has been transformed in the central tower on Market Street, is a survivor. And it's a survivor because it was designed to be earthquake resistant. It had various elements in it to make it that way. The steel frame was made to be very stiff and yet flexible, that is ductile so it could move in the earthquake. But it had all kinds of braces, special portal braces, special X braces and so forth, to make it resistant to earthquakes. Same with the Chronicle building. It had lots of braces in the attempt to keep it from swaying too much in one direction or the other. And these are survivors along with many other survivors. Perhaps the most famous brick building, and masonry building that's granite and sandstone, is our old San Francisco Mint, and we think of that as an unreinforced masonry building, URM.

However, if we look at the plans for the building, the architect Alfred Mullet tried to design it to be earthquake resistant. He designed a concrete foundation that he believed would move as a unit in the earthquake and then, in the building itself, he put vertical and horizontal pieces of iron. Same with the Palace Hotel. So many of the famous buildings that you look at in these pictures that have survived, and where volunteers stayed in the buildings and the federal buildings like the Post Office and Court of Appeals or the Mint, the federal employees did not evacuate when they were told to and they saved these buildings from fire. But they could because the buildings had been designed to be earthquake resistant even before 1906.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a short break and come back and talk lots more with our guests about the earthquake of '06 and possible earthquakes to come. How building has changed since then. So stay with us. We'll be right back from San Francisco. FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about the earthquakes, this 100th year anniversary of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. We're in San Francisco at the Exploratorium with Mary Lou Zobeck, Charles Kircher, Rich Eisner, and Stephen Tobriner. Charles, you're a structural engineer. How would we build the buildings differently and was it amazing that these survived and are still standing to you as a structural engineer?

Mr. KIRCHER: Yes. I think it's a testament that we had good engineering back then. I think we've got better engineering now.

FLATOW: How do you make a building resistant when you design a building here in San Francisco?

Mr. KIRCHER: It has to be able to flex and absorb post-elastic response in a ductile manner so that it can bend without breaking.

FLATOW: Do you have to say I can't build it on this spot because it's just a bad spot to build a building? What makes one -- we were talking about with Dr. Zobeck where a bad area to build a building is. What is a really bad area and what would be a better area? And do you actually say, don't build one here because it's too dangerous?

Mr. KIRCHER: No, I don't think we would say that. If it has a problem with the material below, it requires a special foundation, but it doesn't mean we can't build it.

FLATOW: And what is the best place and the worst place to build it?

Mr. KIRCHER: Well, proximity to fault is a big issue. The closer you are, the stronger the shaking. Softer the soil, the stronger the shaking. So these are all things that engineers take into account when they design the building. We design it with more force when we're in areas closer to the fault.

FLATOW: Rich Eisner, we talk about -- I mentioned before, if and when the big one comes again -- tell us about California's disaster plan and how it would kick in and what would trigger it.

Mr. EISNER: Well, first of all, it's not if. We know we live in an earthquake active area. We are going to have many quakes in the Bay Area. In fact, we have a lot of quakes every day, they're just not felt. So, when a disaster -- and it's not just an earthquake -- occurs, the state system is that local governments are in charge, local governments are first responders, and the entire state mobilizes to support those cities and counties in their response. We provide resources, we provide expertise, technical assistance, personnel.

FLATOW: But what's going to happen? What would go on, you know, should an earthquake occur?

Mr. EISNER: Well, when the earthquake occurs, we will open our operation centers both in the Bay Area and in Sacramento. We will start drawing down, identifying resources, National Guard troops, specialized personnel, medical services personnel, that need to be brought in to assist the local governments. The biggest challenge to any disaster, literally any disaster in the Bay Area, is the bridges, and the Bay itself. The Bay is here because of earthquake activity. The beauty of the Bay Area is derivative from earthquake activity. The challenge is it creates some challenges for us in response. The Bay Bridge, as it's currently standing out there, is not earthquake resistant. We know that, we're rebuilding the eastern portion of it. If the earthquake occurs before that bridge is completely rebuilt and the bar tube is strengthened, we'll have some real problems in getting around the Bay and providing mutual aid to the jurisdictions here.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. This is something that's on everybody's mind everyday when you live in...

Mr. EISNER: Certainly on my mind, but it goes with the job. I think people are aware of it. But I think there's -- people focus on what the attributes of the Bay Area are, the beauty, the climate, the cultural attractions.

FLATOW: A tradeoff.

Mr. EISNER: And you do trade off the threat.

FLATOW: Right, right. Boy, let's talk, Charles, let's talk a bit more about the earthquake. You've taken earthquake scenarios done by the seismologists and used to predict the likely damage. Tell us a bit about that, what kind of damage we're talking about, what you could predict would occur.

Mr. KIRCHER: Right. We built a model that is a collection of many different theories that model the response of buildings and other structures and then subjected all those elements of the model to the scenario shaking you've described. The model covers 19 counties in the greater Northern California area, including approximately ten million people and about a trillion dollars worth of buildings. Half of those people and half of the buildings are within 25 miles of the San Andreas Fault. What we found is that, of this population of people and buildings, approximately 120,000 residences will be significantly damaged. Approximately 10,000 commercial buildings will be significantly damaged. As many as 250,000 households will be displaced, that's folks that will need temporary shelter somewhere. Somewhere between 1,800 nighttime casualties and 3,400 daytime casualties, and a total building damage price tag of about $120 billion, excluding fire falling, which will occur, and excluding damage to lifelines. If you throw those in, the total cost we estimate to be around $150 billion.

FLATOW: Wow, in damage.

Mr. KIRCHER: In damage.

FLATOW: Rich Eisner, is the city able, the region able to get its arms around this, and are you ready for it?

Mr. EISNER: It's not just the city or the region or the state; an event like this would impact the world economy and would be devastating to the national economy.

FLATOW: Did you learn anything from something like Katrina in how to handle an earthquake from a flood, or is it a different plague that you're talking about?

Mr. EISNER: Well, they're very different events in how they affect people and how the events affect structures. We're still learning from Katrina. I mean, the lessons are about reconstruction and recovery, are still being learned and documented. We need to learn a lot more about how these events that disrupt economies, that disrupt communities, can be responded to effectively. We can't just relocate the population. That's what they found out in New Orleans. You can't have business if you don't have employees. You can't have business or employees if you don't have housing. All these things are interrelated.

FLATOW: Hmm. Mary Lou Zobeck, you've said that the '06 earthquake marked the beginning of earthquake science.

Ms. MARY LOU ZOBECK (Seismologist, Regional Coordinator, Northern California Earthquake Hazards Program): That's right. This was the first time that we recognized the San Andreas Fault. Not just, you know, a portion of it, but they actually mapped the entire fault. The 200 miles onshore that broke in Northern California, some poor guy had to get on a horse, take the maps that were available, and follow it to Southern California. So we found out it extended the length of the state. In addition, the geologists were able to tell that this wasn't just a random event. This had been part of a recurring process. There were very small-scale features that they could detect along the fault zone. And they even came up with the notion that it was probably every few hundred years. And in addition, in Southern California, we'd had a large earthquake in 1857. Few people lived there then, but they could show that occurred on the same fault. So, we really recognized that this was some kind of process impacting California.

And furthermore, they used the surveying data and they resurveyed after the earthquake, and they could tell that some sort of horizontal forces were acting far from the fault and that was actually loading the fault. And this led to probably the biggest scientific discovery from the earthquake, and that was the recognition of what today we call an earthquake cycle. That you have a period of loading, distant from the fault, that loads the fault. And you can think of the fault like a thick, or the earth's crust, like a thick elastic sheet. And as you sheer the edges of that, you actually are putting energy into the sheet. And when the fault breaks, it's locked in between big earthquakes, when it breaks, it releases that energy in the form of seismic waves. And then, and they recognized this too, the cycle begins all over again.

FLATOW: Was this before the whole concept of plate tectonics was talked about?

Dr. ZOBECK: It was amazing. This was 60 years before plate tectonics. Geologists of the time were familiar with faults that had vertical motion, because gravity could drive vertical motion, or if you squeeze two blocks together one would override the other. So, they were very familiar with that. But they were completely baffled by what kind of horizontal forces, because if you think about it, you come into real problems on the ends of the fault. And their explanations were pretty ad hoc at the time.

FLATOW: So that really did help them figure this out, that kind of theory...

Dr. ZOBECK: Oh, well it helped us in present time put this all in context.

FLATOW: Yeah, we still don't have a reliable way to predict an earthquake. I remember the Parkfield experiment many years ago. I spent many hours and years walking up and down, looking at the instruments in the ground and the laser ranging and everybody was so -- almost like clockwork, every 20 years an earthquake happened there and we're going to be ready for that.

Dr. ZOBECK: Right.

FLATOW: Didn't happen.

Dr. ZOBECK: Yeah, we were waiting too.

FLATOW: Mother Nature really was on time for all those times except this one.

Dr. ZOBECK: If earthquakes were regular, obviously we'd be able to predict them. But, unfortunately, an analogy I like to use is the meteorologists have been very successful tracking hurricanes.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. ZOBECK: And they do this because they have a really good, three dimensional model of the earth's atmosphere, and they can sample that directly by flying through it, they can look at it with satellite. So, they really know what's going on. So when we have a disturbance, a tropical storm, they can actually predict how it's going to evolve, and whether it will evolve into a large hurricane. We don't have that three dimensional model of the earth with the faults in it. But we are now, with new technologies, interestingly, seeing very intriguing signals down deep in the earth's crust beneath the level where earthquakes occur, and 10 years ago we couldn't even detect these, but we're measuring them now. They don't always lead to an earthquake, but we're sure they're part of the process. So, we may be zeroing in on the trigger, and we're working now on building this three-dimensional model. So, I think sometime in the future, if earthquakes are predictable, and we still don't even know that, but if they are, I think we'll have those models.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. Anybody else want to jump in?

Mr. EISNER: I'd just add that the Parkfield may not have been a successful prediction experiment, but it was the real genesis of our partnership, emergency management's partnership with the earth sciences. And since the mid '70s, we daily collaborate, we exchange information, if there's a moderate earthquake, we'll call them, and they'll call us and tell us what they're assessment is. Our whole public education and public communication revolved around Parkfield and how we tell the population about the threat and how we communicated if there was a prediction, a short term prediction. And so Parkfield, I think, was beneficial. It just wasn't beneficial to the earth sciences.

Dr. ZOBECK: Well now we learned a lot actually from the experiment, but we learned that a lot of things didn't work.

FLATOW: Charles, did you want to say something?

Mr. KIRCHER: As a structural engineer, we go with Rich's prediction which is not if it's going to happen. So we design for its occurrence. The real benefit I think it's been coming from the U.S.G.S. is giving us an understanding of the probabilities of these which we then can use in our evaluation of relative risk from one fault to another. So, we design for the event.

FLATOW: Do you think, Mary Lou, that the rest of the country which is susceptible to earthquakes, certainly the Midwest, which had the biggest one on record, is just biding its time and not building earthquake resistant structures like they should? And, Charles, what do you think also? Mary Lou first. Are they going to have their own big one some day and not be ready for it?

Dr. ZOBECK: Yeah, you know, it's a struggle for us. California is earthquake country, but earthquakes occur throughout most of the United States. And the Pacific Northwest, they've had the biggest earthquake and that was a magnitude 9 on January 26, 1700. We've now been able to backtrack...

FLATOW: Is that right?

Dr. ZOBECK: Right. We can see the evidence. We can see the tsunami that swept over the shoreline there, and we actually know the precise date from tsunami records in Japan. So that was a huge earthquake. That will impact an entire region. But I think as a seismologist, my worst nightmare is when we have a repeat of an earthquake in the Central or Eastern United States. The earth's crust there is much colder than the active Western part. That means it's a much more efficient transmitter of seismic energy. So, the waves are going to travel harder, farther, and they're going to be stronger. So, an equivalent size earthquake will have a much bigger impact. And as Charlie can tell you, they haven't built for those kinds of earthquakes back there. The schools are brick. The police stations, the fire stations, are brick. It's going to be a huge catastrophe but, unfortunately, we know it'll happen. The areas that have had large earthquakes in Charleston, South Carolina, New Madrid, Missouri on the boothill of the state of Missouri, on the Mississippi River, offshore from Massachusetts. From what we know, these earthquakes recur on a time period of about 500 years. So we don't have that much historic record here.

FLATOW: Our number 1-800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us. Please step up to the microphone here. We'll take some questions from out audience, if there are some, on TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Let's go to the phones see who would like to make a comment. Let's go to Ed in Kansas City, Kansas. Hi, Ed.

ED (CALLER): Hi, how are you all today?

FLATOW: Hi how are you?

ED: I found it interesting that you were just talking about the possibility of an earthquake in the central part of the United States. Of course we sit on the same limestone ledge that extends on the cross to the New Madrid Fault area. In '94, after the Northridge earthquake, I was allowed to go out and study fire damage. And I found it interesting that in the context of the code changes that had been adopted after Loma Prieta, that fire protection systems -- I'm a retired code official and fire protection official here in Kansas City -- and it interested me that even in that interim where fire protection was taken into account in earthquake resistant designs, that there was so much damage following the Northridge quake.

And on the photographs that I brought back with me, when I was showing them around and writing up the results of my studying the damage, everybody liked to make the comment of isn't interesting how the older buildings survived so much better than the newer designs. And after they had their duh! Moment and realized that in Los Angeles, that's how you get to be an older building is not falling down in the first earthquake, it just interested me that even in the context of having made these improvements in the designs that we still didn't have it quite right.

FLATOW: Let me get it. . .

ED: These newer models helped to hone in a little bit better.

FLATOW: Charles Kircher, any reaction?

Mr. KIRCHER: Well, we always learn a lot after each earthquake. In terms of seismic code improvement, those of us who work on the code committees, we know that we always have a hot topic that comes up. And in Northridge it was steel moment frames that were suppose to be very resistant to earthquake damage but, no, they had cracks. We found out certain types of wood apartment houses with tuck-under garages that became killers.

FLATOW: Cause there's no structure above the garage? The garage is hollow?

Mr. KIRCHER: The garage is hollow. It's got a soft first story. Yeah. Soft first stories weren't exactly a surprise, but that configuration was new. So, yeah, the seismic codes improve after each earthquake because we learn about a new problem.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. And so it's a constant learning experience from you just go see what's broken what didn't break?

Mr. KIRCHER: It's the best laboratory, unfortunately.

FLATOW: Rich, yeah?

Mr. EISNER: In response to fire...

ED: ...A wealth of information.

FLATOW: What was that Ed?

ED: I was able to bring back Kansas City a wealth of information on the wood construction. The building, the apartment building there in Northridge, where so many people were killed, I actually participated in recovering valuables from the people's apartments that were crushed, and it gave me the opportunity to get in under the structure and really see how the damage occurred. And it was very enlightening. We had just gone under seismic zone classification here in Kansas City with the adoption of the new uniform building code in '92.

FLATOW: Hang on, Ed, we've got to take a break, and we'll come back and talk about some more about earthquake reconstruction, and earthquake prediction, take more calls, and folks from the studio audience here on SCIENCE FRIDAY. So stay with us, we'll be right back from San Francisco. I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR News.

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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about earthquakes with my guest Mary Lou Zobeck, seismologist and regional coordinator with the Northern California Earthquake Hazards Program at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California. Charles Kircher, structural engineer and principal at Charles Kircher and Associates in Palo Alto. Rich Eisner, regional administrator for the coastal region in the Governor's Office of Emergency Services in Oakland, and Stephen Tobriner, author of Bracing for Disaster: Earthquake-Resistant Architecture and Engineering in San Francisco, 1838 to 1933. He's also a professor of architectural history, U.C., Berkeley. Our number 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to some patient people in our Exploratorium audience. Yes, sir?

Mr. ROBERT KOBIS (ph) (Audience Member): Hi Ira I'm Robert Kobis visiting San Francisco from Portland, Oregon. And Mary Lou Zobeck made a comment about tsunamis in the coastal regions of Oregon. We are worried about tsunamis. Doesn't the Bay Area worry about them too?

Dr. ZOBECK: The Bay Area, all of coastal North America needs to worry about tsunamis. I think the difference, though, is that you have a local source of a tsunami and it will be large very close in. Whereas in the Bay Area, we don't really anticipate a local source for a tsunami, but we have been struck a number of times by a distant ones from Alaska.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. Why was there no tsunami in this '06 earthquake?

Dr. ZOBECK: There actually was a very small tsunami, strictly speaking. We have a tide gauge at Fort Point, which is right underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. And it recorded the motion of the water. The water down dropped four inches over a time period of 15 minutes, and then it recovered. And then later we can see some sloshing of energy that went into San Francisco Bay and came back out. But fundamentally, the faults in the Bay Area move largely horizontally and when you get a tsunami, you need a vertical displacement of a large amount of water.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Let's stay here in the audience and take another question.

Unidentified Female #1 (Audience Member): Hi. I'm a local. I live down in San Mateo County on the coast farther south than San Francisco. And my question is, okay, so we prepare as much as we possibly can for earthquakes. But one of these days it's going to shake, maybe, in fact during this program, it's going to start shaking. What do we do? I've heard recently that what we've been told for years, to get either under a door jam, or under a table is not the best course of action, and that you actually should get next to a piece of furniture because as things fall, it will form a void. So, I wonder if your panel could actually comment on what is the proper thing to do?

FLATOW: Rich Eisner's head is shaking so fast. That I have to, before it falls off, I have to go to him.

Mr. EISNER: It'll fall off shortly. I mean, we were all told by our parents get in the doorway, and we learned actually looking at occupant behavior and damage and injuries in earthquakes that getting in a doorway doesn't really protect you. What you need to do is get down under a piece of furniture to protect you from falling debris. The issue whether it's under or next to a table, if you're next to a table and a light fixture comes down, you have no protection whatsoever. So, that the message to our kids to any person living in earthquake country or visiting is get down, get under a sturdy piece of furniture. If there's not furniture, get as far as away from the outside walls of your structure as you can, to an interior area of your house.

FLATOW: Steve Tobriner, could you tell from pictures in your research of past quakes if that's true? I mean the things that people go under these things survive? Is it a good place to hide or...

Mr. TOBRINER: You know, we have some indication that people were aware that running out of a building, and particularly a brick building, was really dangerous. We have one person saying, don't go outside, it's an earthquake. At least he recalls saying this to his friends to stop them. And other people saying, Oh my God, they're walking out of the, they're running out of the building. It's going, the fa├žade is going to fall down on them. So, we do have some, you know, definite proof. Also this business of brick cornices and things of that sort falling into the street. In 1906, the reason that the fatalities were relatively small in relationship to the earthquake, about less than one percent of the 400,000 people that were here, it was because it was early in the morning, and people were not out in the streets, and were not hit by debris.

FLATOW: Rich, do you hear this question all the time from people who live around here. What do you do, you stay inside, go outside?

Mr. EISNER: Well, we've heard the question and there's one particular person who's an advocate for this idea that you don't get under the furniture. We try to just get people to look at pictures of damage, and see where the hazardous places are. It's on the sidewalk. It is in front of buildings. It's at the facade.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. EISNER: We also had data, a lot of data from earthquakes that, the more you try to move, the more likely you're going to be injured. The strong motions are going to overtake you and knock you off your feet.

FLATOW: Oh, is that right?

Mr. EISNER: Yeah.

FLATOW: Well, those of us who've never been in a major earthquake cannot imagine what that must feel like.

Mr. EISNER: Well, come on back.

FLATOW: Mary Lou says if I sit in this spot long enough...

Mr. EISNER: That's right.

FLATOW: Yes, right in the audience there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE #1 (audience member): Okay, so, I have a question. Where's the safest place to keep your earthquake box that holds, like, your three-day food supply and stuff like that?

FLATOW: Earthquake box? A new concept for those of us who have hurricanes, but we can understand what that means. Yes, Rich Eisner?

Mr. EISNER: Well, it's both a functional question and a structural question. You want to put your earthquake supplies, the water, portable radio, etc., in a place that's accessible, where all the family members can find it. Typically not in the basement, which is likely to be filled with debris, but just accessible. The important thing is that you have a kit. You have a supply of water and food, a flashlight, a portable radio, that you can get information from the media.

FLATOW: Okay? Do you have one?


FLATOW: You don't have a kit.

FLATOW: Are you going to get one?


FLATOW: Okay. Okay. Well what should you have? Is an earthquake kit the same kind of thing you would have for a hurricane or is it different?

Mr. EISNER: Well the basic issues are you're being displaced, so you need water, you need food. You need a way of getting information from the government or the public agencies, so you need a portable radio with batteries. You need a flashlight, so if the earthquake occurs at night. You should have sturdy shoes available so that you're not walking on debris. And we recommend that every family have a family or friend's number outside of the damaged area that they can call and check in. Because lack of information just drives people up the wall.

FLATOW: Right. What did you learn about how populations behave from the 1989 quake, where cars were quite, you know, abundant, from, let's say, the '06 quake, where people maybe didn't have such kind of transportation? Did they try to get out of town in '06, Stephen?

Dr. TOBRINER: Absolutely. Southern Pacific Railroad, that was a friend, that wasn't a friend to everyone, being a huge monopoly, actually was able to give free passage to 300,000 people leaving the city who wished to leave. The poorest people, a lot of disabled people, remained in the city. And the city responded, along with the federal government, in a really incredible way by first putting up tents and then, we all in San Francisco know these things, these earthquake shacks. About 5,000 small wooden buildings were put up in the city to shelter the people who didn't leave. My grandfather and great grandfather did in fact leave, along with my father. They went to Oakland and then came back to rebuild.

FLATOW: Hmm. Wow. Well, what could the city do to, I'll ask all of you, what do you think that San Francisco and California could do to make this city a safer place? Mary Lou, any thoughts on this?

Dr. ZOBECK: Well, I think we...

FLATOW: Are there places already that exist that could be sheltered, or, what would happen?

Dr. ZOBECK: I think we already know where the shaking's going to be the strongest. Some of our modeling has shown us that. And we also know, from the studies that Charlie and Stephen and their colleagues have done, that we have a real problem with urban housing, and particularly in the urban core, the Bay Area. A lot of very old structures, the softer story architectural style that Charlie alluded to, where there's really not much support for shaking on the first floor, and above it, apartments. The numbers that Charlie gave, we're talking about 500,000 people homeless here in the Bay Area. And San Francisco is on a peninsula; where are those people going to go? We have a few ferries. We don't have a lot of ferry capacity. So, I think it's going to be a huge catastrophe on the scale of Katrina.

FLATOW: Mm. Anybody else want to...?

Dr. TOBRINER: Well, let's talk about the, what you might think of as bad buildings. We mentioned the soft story structures. We still have a number of unreinforced masonry buildings that have not yet been retrofitted. And the engineers are increasingly concerned about what we call nonductile concrete, which means, it's going to behave in a brittle manner. What we found from the study was that about half of all those people, that are estimated to be fatalities, will die in those sorts of buildings. Even though those buildings represent less than five percent of all the building types, which means, it's a relatively small quantity, it's something we can address. We're already addressing un-reinforced masonry with programs to retrofit them. We need these sorts of programs to remove more bad apples from the barrel.

FLATOW: Is this a money problem then, to get to reinforce these things?

Dr. TOBRINER: Not always. There's often a very cost-effective ways of making these buildings safe, but since it's this relatively small population of all buildings, it's something we can do.

FLATOW: Right. Mm hmm. Rich?

Mr. EISNER: I think we can wait and let the earthquake tell us what the bad buildings are, which will cost lives and just disrupt our communities, or we can strengthen those buildings. And really, strengthening the buildings, which will take decades, we know that this is a long-term process, will change the outcome of the earthquake.

FLATOW: We always think about it in disasters, about the first responders. And hospitals are certainly going to be among the first responders. Are they among the most vulnerable places, or are they pretty well safe?

Mr. EISNER: I'll let Charlie speak to that.

Mr. KIRCHER: We have...

FLATOW: You passing the buck from the state to the... Okay...

Mr. EISNER: To the structural engineer.

Mr. KIRCHER: And the structural engineer will start this and pass the buck back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KIRCHER: There is Senate Bill 1953, which is addressing, specifically, the safety and functionality of hospitals and, as a result of that bill, hospitals are undergoing first a survey process and then an improvement process. And the survey has come back with some incredibly pessimistic views of hospital performance, and that is what Rich is alluding to. On the peninsula, of approximately a hundred medical facilities, both hospitals and clinics, only seven were considered to be up to snuff with the most current standards for functionality.

FLATOW: Wow. Wow.

Mr. KIRCHER: And over half are considered to be some sort of life-safety risk. Engineers, like myself, we don't necessarily believe this to be anything but overly pessimistic. But then, folks like Rich, who have to deal with, how are we going to get folks taken care of in case they're injured, are facing these statistics right now.

Mr. EISNER: It's hard to be optimistic in this business. I think we have the emergency management systems to respond, but if we have no place to take the victims, of if the bridges are damaged and we can't move victims, we're really constrained. And it's quite frustrating to get this kind of information. The best plans and the best organizations and the best systems can't solve a problem if you don't have the facilities.

FLATOW: We're talking about earthquakes this hour, from San Francisco, on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. But you don't -- I hear what you're saying, I hear the concern. I'm going to get Stephen to react to this. What is your view of listening to the business from the political side of this?

Dr. TOBRINER: Well, I just have to say that the University of California at Berkeley has done an outstanding job of retrofitting its buildings. It's our taxpayer dollars, but we've put in a half a billon dollars to make that campus earthquake resistant. This means resistant to the loss of life, the loss of our children and the staff there. The buildings have been upgraded in an amazing way. And remember that a major earthquake -- we've had major earthquakes in Berkeley, but they didn't cause damage to the University. So, this is mitigation before damage. And it's a terrific exemplar of what can be done.

FLATOW: Is this your way of saying, guys, spend the money in San Francisco. Get it done.

Dr. TOBRINER: Yes. I think it's really important that we all, we live in a beautiful place, and we have to pay what I call the earthquake tax, both individually, and actually, as a state.

FLATOW: Hmm. Rich, you want to touch that potato? It's pretty hot now.

Mr. EISNER: No, I agree with Steve. And I think that we do have to make these investments. The other part of, and I just want to sort of emphasize that, this is not a San Francisco problem. Most of coastal California is in very high risk seismic zones. The rest of the state is in a seismic zone. We're at the edge of the boundary, of the plate boundary. So, the 1906 event was 19 counties, not just San Francisco. The next event could be 19 counties, affecting 10 million people. The vast majority of whom will survive, but they'll be victims nonetheless if the economy is destroyed, if their life investments are gone.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. I have time for one really quick question.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2 (Audience Member): A really quick question for either Stephen or Charles. How do you retrofit something like the football stadium at Cal, where the fault goes through the center of it?

FLATOW: You make two football stadiums out of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Seems pretty easy, back East that's...

Mr. EISNER: I'll start this Steve. I went to Stanford, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EISNER: ...I'll let Stephen answer the rest of it.

Dr. TOBRINER: Well, it's a very difficult question, which we're struggling with right now. Because, we have a better football team, there are now interested donors to help us with this stadium, which was built across an active fault. And the engineers and architects, and I'm on a committee called the Seismic Review Committee, we're all struggling with trying to figure this out.

FLATOW: Did they know it was an active fault when they built it?

Mr. EISNER: Well, they did in fact, and we're quite -- now, on the University, for example, we have these wonderful buildings, like, Sather Tower that you all, that you know, our great campanile, was designed in 1914, and Charles Drulis, the engineer, who was there when the stadium was being planned, built that building to be earthquake resistant. And it's an incredible building. Interesting, in his, you know, prescient ideas about earthquake resistance in 1914, which was very early. But the stadium thing is like, wow. How could they possibly have done it? We have Lawson on the faculty, Drulis on the faculty, yet there it is. And it's a huge problem for us. There are several possibilities for the current solution. To basically break those stands of the University, that go across the fault, into two, so that, you know...

FLATOW: We're going to have to leave you to figure this out on your own.

Dr. TOBRINER: All right.

FLATOW: I mean, you can mess it up building it, you'll have to fix it later on. thank you all for taking time to be with us, Stephen Tobriner, author of Bracing for Disaster: Earthquake-Resistant Architecture and Engineering in San Francisco, 1838-1933, and also a professor at U.C. Berkeley, figuring out what to do with that stadium. Rich Eisner, regional administrator, coastal region, in the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, in Oakland. Thank you for being with us. Charles Kircher, structural engineer, and a principle at Charles Kircher and Associates in Palo Alto. Thank you for being here. And Mary Lou Zobeck, thanks for coming back. Dr. Zobeck is a seismologist and a regional coordinator for the Northern California Earthquake Hazards Program at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today.

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