Masters of Disaster

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

Then there's an annex to the plan which mentions that the city's Peninsula reservoirs, Crystal Springs, Pilarcitos, and San Andreas, have an average of "20 billion gallons of water which can be delivered to the city without pumping [emphasis in the original]."

This is incorrect, says Water Department Manager John Mullane. "It's not 'without pumping.' The water we get out of the [Hetch Hetchy reservoir] system basically flows by gravity until it gets down into the Bay Area. From the Bay Area, we have to pump it. So there's really no water that comes into the city that's not pumped." And getting the water here will still require undamaged pipelines and working electrical generators.

These mistakes and oddities in the EOP only highlight the fact that the plan, while winning official applause from city department heads and unofficial applause from the state OES, was created by a relatively small number of people and could benefit from a public airing, a "reality check," if you will.

And while Bitoff and company apparently have tried much harder than their predecessors to plan for disaster from the macro to the micro, they can only do so much. It is politically impossible for the OES to harangue all the agencies and nongovernmental organizations that will respond in a disaster, or to make sure that they all have their own cohesive disaster plans.

"Potential Rubble"
Without a doubt, the city's disaster planners are better prepared to face a major emergency than they were in 1989.

"I don't think you can ever be ready enough," acknowledges Bitoff, but after a bit of hedging, he adopts a can-do stance: "If we had a major crisis today, we could handle it."

Bitoff and his lieutenants are convinced. The state OES, unofficially, is convinced. Yet no amount of planning can completely prepare the city to deal with the first 72 hours following a major quake. Disasters will always generate some unpredictable, random event that turns the best-laid plans to hash. Will city officials ignore the new EOP when the next quake strikes as they did in 1989, and wing it? Will they order yet another rewrite of the EOP? Can disasters be managed from a playbook?

Chief Building Inspector Laurence Kornfield isn't sanguine about a post-earthquake San Francisco. Sometimes, all he can think of is the devastation of Kobe.

"When I walk around the city, the streets of San Francisco, I don't see buildings. For the first few months after I got back from Kobe, I didn't really see them. What I saw was potential rubble."

Potential rubble.
"What is this building going to look like [after a quake]? Well, maybe that beam will hold it up. And I still see that. I still see it through those eyes.

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