Masters of Disaster

The San Francisco Office of Emergency Services unveils its new post-apocalypse playbook

Bauman and Kornfield wrote a paper about their Kobe tour, which they distributed to city departments. This led to an invitation from John Bitoff, the retired Navy rear admiral who has helmed the OES since 1992, to give a Kobe debriefing at a breakfast meeting of then-Mayor Frank Jordan and his department heads.

Bauman and Kornfield's show-and-tell convinced the OES that the interdepartmental task force revising the EOP wasn't thinking on a large enough scale, says Hedleston. The agency needed new concepts to deal with a city balkanized by downed freeways and buildings. The authors' insights prompted the OES to adopt a plan of decentralized command in the case of a disaster, with Fire Department battalion chiefs serving as the lead disaster-fighting authorities.

Why the Fire Department? Because fire suppression must be the city's No. 1 priority, a bitter lesson of the 1906 earthquake. Hedleston says that 16 blocks of Van Ness Avenue -- which had largely survived the initial shaking -- were dynamited in a last-ditch effort to stop the fires that burned Nob Hill and the Tenderloin to the ground.

The EOP posits four levels of emergency response: Zero is for the yawn of day-to-day fires and murder; Level 1 is for a "local emergency," equaling the sinkhole incident or the shootings at 101 California; and Level 2 designates a "local disaster" "affecting multiple city services, populations and geographic areas," such as the riots following the Rodney King verdict.

Level 3, though, is for an Irwin Allen-quality, I'll-see-you-in-hell "regional disaster involving widespread damage to structures and disruption of services." This category covers major earthquakes (over 6.5 Richter), airliner crashes, "hazmat" disasters like exploding oil tankers, and thermonuclear war.

Among those catastrophes, a major earthquake is the only one that cannot accurately be foreseen or prevented. Seismologists tell us that an 8.3 shaker like the 1906 quake will likely be the maximum "event" generated by the San Andreas fault. The consequences of a repeat of this earthquake were studied in 1995 by Stanford University and Risk Management Solutions Inc., a Menlo Park-based engineering firm. The study estimated that the total economic hit from such an event would be "seven times greater than the worst earthquake losses experienced to date in California ... $170-225 billion versus Northridge's estimated $25-30 billion loss. Loma Prieta caused approximately $7 billion in losses."

Also, between 3,000 and 8,000 fatalities would occur, along with "8,000 to 18,000 serious (hospitalized) injuries."

How to match levels of readiness to disasters is an ongoing debate within the OES. Carl Hedleston tends toward a conservative approach, while colleague Frank Schober, who currently is designing training exercises for the new EOP, tends to be a little more aggressive, Hedleston says. The final decision belongs to OES chief Bitoff.

The study predicts that four of the five transbay bridges -- the Golden Gate, Dumbarton, Bay, and San Mateo/Hayward -- will be temporarily closed, if not collapsed like the Bay Bridge following Loma Prieta. Many of the 10-county area's freeways and 4,100 other bridges will have to be closed for inspections, regardless of whether they have visible damage.

Other transit will be disrupted as well, including ferry service and shipping to the ports of Oakland and Redwood City. The runways at San Francisco and Oakland airports, built on sediment, will have to close to be inspected for damage; and the peninsular lines of Caltrain and BART will be damaged as well.

Fires will exact an estimated $12 billion to $18 billion worth of damage to buildings, at least a dozen times that of the devastating 1991 Oakland Hills fire.

Relatively speaking, life will be a breeze 72 hours after the quake. By then, the fires should be extinguished; the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which handles more predictable disasters, should be up and running; "mutual aid" agreements with unaffected cities will provide us with more docs and more blood; the National Guard will enforce curfews and/or martial law; Jennings, Rather, and Brokaw will chopper in to do epauleted stand-ups near the most impressively crushed buildings; and the Valley's Travis Air Force Base will direct the airlift of thousands of tons of supplies to whatever local runways remain intact.

But in the first 72 hours, the city of San Francisco will be very much on its own, isolated at the very tip of a long peninsula by the collapse of an aging infrastructure. In that time, the EOP will be the city's maximum self-help book.

The EOP anticipates such disruption of normal chains of command after a major quake that, for the first time since 1906, the city's fate will be in the hands of firefighters at the battalion level.

The EOP's decentralized command plan evolved from the Fire Department's existing Battalion Command system, which divides the city into 12 districts (including one for San Francisco's airport), each centered around a fire battalion station. (A 13th district will soon be added as Navy-surplus Treasure Island is woven into the plan.)

In the case of a Level 3 disaster, the Battalion Command districts will become Emergency Response Districts (ERDs), and battalion fire chiefs will be designated "Incident Commanders." The Incident Commanders will become the emergency "minimayors" of their districts, although the OES shies away from calling them that, and lay full claim to the city resources in their districts until order is restored. Other city departments -- including the police -- will serve in support roles.

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