Risk Reassessment

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

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.

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.

"Just a minute; I'm looking something up," he said, staring into his computer as I walked into his office. "Ah. That's it -- 66,000. Sixty-six thousand people have died in automobile accidents since 9/11."

The image of a fear-mongering piece of anti-car propaganda flashed through my brain. And then we went to lunch at Tu Lan, San Francisco's best Asian restaurant. Befitting this fearless city, it's located on the west end of Sixth Street, one of the most dangerous parts of town. Over chicken salad I learned that Snyder is one of those San Franciscans who know exactly where the city's water storage tanks are, so he can access them following an earthquake's carnage. He described conversations he'd had with San Francisco friends about the composition of natural-disaster preparedness kits: It's best to include water, because reservoirs will likely break, he said.

I asked Snyder what sort of moral one might draw from the news that San Francisco terrorism risk, plus San Francisco natural disaster risk, equals the most dangerous place in the world.

"It means that you should be prepared, but you shouldn't be afraid. If you let fear take control, you allow yourself to be manipulated by people like John Ashcroft," he said. He drew a circle on my reporter's notebook with the word "fear" inside, then drew a line through it.

"Just two words," he said. "No fear."

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