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Risk Reassessment 

As the Bush administration scares America witless, San Francisco might offer a model for living well in the shadow of apocalypse

Wednesday, Apr 9 2003
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When it comes -- and the day will come -- San Francisco hospitals and delis and apartments and shoe stores will lie in rubble, singed by flames. Dead bodies will float in the bay. Others will decompose under crumpled pillars. Many more will have been consumed by hundreds of fires. Survivors, for a time, will live a version of post-apocalypse: Roads and transit lines will be damaged, gasoline will be unavailable, millions will remain stranded for days. In the few buildings remaining in the Marina, SOMA, the Mission, and elsewhere, feces will sit unperturbed in waterless toilets, because water mains, reservoirs, and canals will have shattered. Levees along the Sacramento River Delta will have crumbled en masse, salinizing much of California's water supply. Before long, food -- along with water and gasoline and shelter and medicine and transport -- will become dear. And people will hoard that, too.

"More than a thousand people, probably two or three thousand or more, are dead," writes Marc Reisner in a speculative account of post-Big One San Francisco in the new book A Dangerous Place: California's Unsettling Fate. "They are buried under tons of rubble, crushed in cars, expiring in hospitals, drowned under the Bay Bridge. A lot of them won't really be found. Pieces of them, perhaps. Some teeth and bones and a wedding ring."

But that's not all.

I ran across Reisner's book on a new-releases table last month, just a week or so after I'd learned that global risk analysts -- professionals who concern themselves with apocalyptic scenarios such as Reisner's -- are beginning to view San Francisco as the highest-risk city in the world. When one combines the high likelihood that San Francisco will suffer a devastating earthquake and fire in the next few decades with its outsized role as a terrorist target, experts say, the combined level of peril is unique in the world.

"With a terrorist attack, the losses for the insurance industry are very close to that of earthquake," says Peter Ulrich, managing director, enterprise risk for Risk Management Solutions Inc., a Newark, Calif.-based firm that creates natural disaster and terrorism risk models for insurers. "It's much worse if you have both [types of risk]."

Adds Anselm Smolka, head of the geophysical and geological risks group for Munich Re Group, the world's largest reinsurance company: "My group's expertise is natural hazards. But just from an insurance perspective, since Sept. 11 it really makes sense to consider man-made hazards as well."

Would such a calculus make San Francisco the riskiest place in the world?

"Of course," Smolka says. "No doubt."


Americans are possibly more frightened than we've ever been. We're afraid enough to buy gas masks and guns, afraid enough to see ordinary events as threatening, afraid enough to treat neighbors as the enemy if they look somehow wrong.

Our current government has used this fear as a new coin of the realm. Decontextualized "orange" terrorism warnings prod us nonsensically, in the manner of an older brother sneaking up and poking us in the ribs. After the horror of 9/11, the Bush administration offered more horror: the Osama bin Laden boogeyman, the Axis of Evil boogeymen, then the refurbished, WMD-brandishing boogeyman's boogeyman, Saddam Hussein.

Fear is the opposite of faith; it's the antithesis of openness. It's the converse of living life prepared for, and welcoming of, whatever happenstance might come along. Fear is the sort of mind-set that doesn't mind that the United States is becoming isolated in the world. In a fearful mood, much of our nation doesn't perceive that by lashing out in dread, we're creating greater peril still.

Fear of terrorism has allowed national leaders to scrap the Bill of Rights. Popular American fear of an unstable world has facilitated a gruesome, globe-enraging war.

Yet fearfulness is a sensibility astonishingly absent from this, one of the world's most dangerous places. Our whole city is poised at the edge of earthquake and terrorist doom, yet residents boast of their tranquil quality of life. Our theater district is in the Tenderloin's crack and heroin Skid Row. Our millionaires' houses are about to slide into the bay. We're famed for being open to anyone and anything; we embrace and celebrate communities that are outcast elsewhere.

And during this, our national spring of dread, thousands of San Franciscans have again and again taken to the streets, rejecting the doctrine of fear.

If I didn't know any better, I'd say providence had chosen us for something: As the Bush administration seeks to scare the shit out of America, perhaps it's up to San Francisco to offer a voice of calm.


During a month in which headlines have been dominated by shock-'n'-awe bombs, embeds, al Qaeda-like terrorists, sieges, irregular forces, and amber waves of steel, a different series of fear-inciting news tremors has gone unreported in San Francisco.

A report by Munich Re Group, the mammoth reinsurer, now places San Francisco as the second riskiest city in the world in terms of natural disasters, after Tokyo.

Risk Management Solutions Inc., the Newark firm that develops mathematical models insurance companies use in determining levels of risk, just finished a new San Francisco earthquake and fire simulation model depicting temblor-provoked firestorms raging through the city's neighborhoods.

And this month the USGS will issue a report, timed to coincide with the anniversary of the April 18-23, 1906, earthquake and fire, that will restate the chance that San Francisco will suffer a severe earthquake. The previous estimate, released in 1999, held that there was a 70 percent chance of such a massive quake occurring sometime in the next 30 years. Now, USGS experts tell me, new science suggests the risk estimate is ever so slightly lower than reported earlier. We'll have to wait until this month's government press release to know exactly how much less, a USGS official told me.

I can hardly wait.


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Matt Smith

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