Archive for Friday, April 21, 2006

Living in the earthquake zone

April 21, 2006


— The last time I checked the coat closet where I keep our earthquake crisis kit, I counted 11 gallon-bottles of water and about five packs of D and AAA batteries. I have a lot of other things in the kit, but I have become compulsive about checking the water and battery supply to make sure they're "fresh."

Of course, I don't have any idea how fresh the water and batteries need to be, nor have I written dates on the supplies that I have. So I just keep throwing another bottle or battery four-pack into the closet and hope for the best. This seems to mirror the attitude so many of us have about the major catastrophe that geologists say is virtually guaranteed to befall us sometime in the next 30 years: Worry about it to distraction for a few hours or a few days. And then forget about it entirely.

After being bombarded with stories of the Great Quake that ripped San Francisco apart at the seams one century ago this week, I have gone through a phase of born-again earthquake preparedness.

My last born-again phase was in the days after the Hurricane Katrina disaster. That's when I got the work gloves and weather radio that I had been putting off adding to our earthquake kit. That's also when I remembered that I'd sneaked into our ration of peanut butter - a major weakness of mine - and eaten most of it.

Then I went back to my usual state of earthquake denial.

It's difficult to explain to people who don't live here how having the constant threat of your home and your entire neighborhood being shaken down around your ears is just something you come to accept. It's almost hilarious to think about how much we obsess over real estate out here when there's a decent chance it may be reduced to rubble before the 30-year mortgage is paid.

During a recent trip to the Oakland Museum of California, which has an exhibit commemorating the 1906 quake, I was amazed to see the photos of the breadth of the destruction. On the front page of the Oakland Herald, dated 100 years ago (April 19), there were so many tales of mayhem in San Francisco that you might have missed the small story tucked onto the bottom corner of the page. "Streets on San Jose Are Filled With Dead," the headline reads. "Stanford is in Ruins."

This reminded me of another small story tucked away into the Mercury News this month, reporting that there are more than 2,600 so-called "soft first-story buildings" in Santa Clara County alone that are especially vulnerable in a major earthquake. These are multi-story buildings that have garages on the first story with only narrow poles supporting the weight of the building, instead of thick walls. It's estimated that about 83,000 people in the county live in buildings like this.

I wonder if any of them have spent much time assembling an earthquake kit or considered moving to a more stable building. My guess is that not many have.

Let's face it, on some level we must all enjoy living on the edge - even if it's on the edge of the Hayward Fault. In the end, we can only hope that our ability to adapt to the risk of living here in the age of the next great quake is equaled by our ability to prepare for it as best we can.

For me, that means staying out of the peanut butter jars that I put into our earthquake kit when I'm in my next born-again preparedness phase.

After that, let the chips fall where they may.

Sue Hutchison is a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Her e-mail address is


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