Sunday, January 17, 2010

The shakes

Seeing the swathes of destruction and broken lives in Haiti is sobering when viewed from anywhere in the world. From here in San Francisco I feel an extra jolt of sympathy, and a jitteriness that comes from living in another earthquake prone city.

Almost anything else that could cause such destruction; catastrophic climate change, a rogue nuclear bomb, are things that we can half convince ourselves that we have some hope of preventing. We can at least campaign, protest, write and have opinions about how such things can be avoided, futile as that may be in reality. But earthquakes and natural disasters are not something you can petition your senator about. All we know is that they will happen, and all we can do is try to be prepared. Poor, poorly governed nations like Haiti are not prepared.

Blogger English mum has set up a page for donations at bloggers for Haiti, through 'just giving'. They send a "shelter box", with everything a family needs to survive, including most importantly a tent home. Please consider donating to this group, or to Oxfam, Doctors without borders, or the American Red Cross. Also, please consider making a monthly subscription donation to these organization, so they can ensure that they have steady revenue for the long rebuilding that will continue in the months after the catastrophe has faded from our minds, as it inevitably will.

I'm thinking that unlike most of you, when I looked at the "shelter box" I thought, "wow, we could do with one of those stored in our basement". You see, we don't have an "earthquake kit", though every San Franciscan should. In fact the only time I ever had emergency supplies stashed away was when I lived with a particularly well organized roommate (Chihuahua, do you still do this?!). Our city itself is more prepared. Unlike Port au Prince, it has strict building codes, and the political systems in place to enforce them, so most of the structures should survive a sizable quake without crushing their occupants, but still water, electricity and access to the city, especially seeing as the two main routes in and out are over bridges are likely to be severely disrupted. And though our buildings are designed not to crush their occupants, that doesn't mean they will be habitable post quake either. Many of us live in old homes, some that withstood the events of 1906. Households are advised to keep three days of supplies, a hand crank radio, batteries and flashlights and clothing in a safe place in their home.

"The big one", the earthquake of 1906, happened before the Richter scale for measuring the force of earthquakes was in use, but it is estimated to have been a 7.8. The quake, and the subsequent fire destroyed 80% of the city. I lifted the photo below from the Wikipedia page devoted to the disaster. Though 103 years old, this is recognizable to me as San Francisco today, and as I look at this, so similar to shots from Haiti, I superimpose them in my mind on modern day San Francisco. Something I don't really think about often is now at the forefront of my mind. "What would we do if it happened here?"

The last good sized quake here was in 1989, before I lived here, but I have many friends who were here then. The building I worked in at the time,  made from adjoining modern 12 story towers, performed perfectly. Built on rollers it swayed with the forces of the earth, the metal panels joining each floor of the towers dropped free as they were designed to, giving each building the freedom to oscillate. Apparently, legend from our lab goes, a tall stack of petri dishes on the bench didn't even fall. It wasn't until they saw the news, that many people who worked there realized how bad the earthquake really was, a 6.9 on the Richter scale.

Bad as it was, the death toll of only 63 is a testament to decent building standards. But still, repairs and upgrades recommended back in 1989 to the Bay Bridge, and to the General Hospital are only now under construction. Memories fade fast and the political will to invest in infrastructure to protect against a distant eventuality is weak, even here in California.

From our families personal perspective I realize that if a big quake struck during work hours we would be scattered widely across the bay area, the kids in South City, Geekydaddy and I a bridge away across the water in the East bay, and the animals at home in San Francisco. Would we be able to get in contact with each other? Would we be able to reach each other?

I still don't really know what we would do. So today I'm moving "earthquake preparedness planning" from the "someday maybe" to the "immediate action" section of my to do list. And packing up bags of clothing to send to the children of Haiti.


A Modern Mother said...

I was in SF for the '89 earthquake and it just so happened that everyone was just walking in the door at the time (was living with my parents). It was nice to be together and safe. Thanks for posting!

Iota said...

That was an interesting read.

The equivalent for us is tornadoes. I felt very differently about them after I'd volunteered for a w/e at Greensburg, Kansas, two years after a tornado wiped out half the town. Before then, it all seemed a bit remote. Now, I take each warning very seriously, and yes, I have an emergency kit in the basement.

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