Risk Reassessment

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

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.

Though the risk of terrorist attack presents vastly less danger to individual San Franciscans than the threat of a severe earthquake, the thought of terrorism inspires more dread.

Accordingly, for the past two years, Risk Management Solutions Inc. has also been updating a model used for predicting the likelihood that a terrorist might attack America at any given moment. While this exercise might intuitively sound specious, it's important to recall that pretty much every aspect of our economic lives -- the value of currency, housing prices, loan rates, gasoline prices, pork belly futures -- is based on dubious-seeming predictions about the likelihood of highly unpredictable events. Somebody's got to do this predicting work, and RMS does.

According to the company's model, San Francisco ranks among the top seven U.S. cities to be targeted by terrorists, says Robert Muir Wood, RMS's director of global risk modeling in London. Calculating terrorism risk involves trying to get inside the mind of terrorists, and, to do so, RMS adapts game theory, the quantitative branch of the social sciences popularized in the film A Beautiful Mind. Accordingly, RMS theorists consult with terrorism experts in Scotland, read world news headlines, lunch with Rand Corp. experts, and sift the resulting factoids through a series of theoretical ideas that combine random chance with the assumption that terrorist ringleaders plot strategy in a logical way.

"There's a hierarchy of cities," says Peter Ulrich, the RMS risk analyst. "And you have to go back to questions of human loss, economic loss, and symbolic targets. Within those key cities, what are the most desirable targets? First, obviously, are the White House and the nation's Capitol Building. Then you go to the next targets, such as trophy skyscrapers, stock exchanges, and military bases. Then the game-theory engine is used to come up with not just the targets of choice, but the attack weapons as well."

Adds Wood: "The Golden Gate Bridge is a high-profile target, but it's not that easy to destroy the Golden Gate Bridge. It's a very obvious target, not very easy to disable it. While you might start off with a terrorist saying, 'Let's go for it,' but then you have to follow with him saying, 'Let's go for something less difficult.' We try and think probabilistically. We think of a whole range of factors. What is a potential target? What kind of attack modes would a terrorist use? If you want to attack a subway system, why pick on San Francisco? Why not pick on New York, when they've got a subway system?"

Regardless of the qualityof terrorists' thinking, there's doubtless a much greater quantity of terrorist plots now that we're marauding Iraq, according to current risk analysis.

"We look at 100,000 events. There are different targets, different attack modes, we consider wind directions. Each has a conditional probability," Ulrich said when I interviewed him a week before the Iraq invasion. "We currently think there is going to be half of an event per year. With recently captured al Qaeda planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed out of the picture, we need to reduce that. If we go to war with Iraq next week, we'll have to increase it."

OK then.

Thirteen years ago San Francisco novelist Fenton Johnson wrote an extensive, philosophizing feature for the New York Times Magazine suggesting this city's comfort level with exorbitant risk was based in denial.

"My New York editors loved that piece," Johnson told me last week. "They love anything that says Californians are foolish."

During the decade that followed, Johnson, now a creative writing professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson, has been writing about philosophy, religion, faith, and fear; he'll be in San Francisco this month to promote a new book about time he spent in Buddhist and Catholic monasteries. He said he's troubled by the war in Iraq, so he's been writing anti-war op ed pieces. He acknowledged that there might be more to San Franciscans' unique relationship with danger than mere magical thinking.

He recalled his own experience of the 1989 earthquake: "It was really fascinating; I was scared witless. But you can't let your life be dictated by that. At some point there's a point that fear takes over, and it dominates our lives."

Last month, not long after I'd learned that experts are saying we live in the world's most dangerous place, I had lunch with typical San Francisco character Dave Snyder. The former director of the S.F. Bicycle Coalition, Snyder recently started his own typically San Francisco nonprofit group, with a typical San Francisco name: Transportation for a Livable City, dedicated, mostly, to fighting new parking garages.

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