The Mayor's Quake Insurance Program

Stop the presses: a column in praise of Gavin Newsom's political courage in support of the public interest

In San Francisco's perfect political storm, a wave of earthquake destruction careens through the Richmond, Sunset, and Excelsior districts, toppling flimsy, wood-framed buildings as it goes. After a moment of quiet, another roar fills the air, this one of screams and splintered beams as at least 15,000 outer-borough buildings crumble to the ground. Thousands of people die instantly, thousands more linger awhile. Citywide, at least 50,000 people are left homeless, the bulk in these vast, outlying neighborhoods, which went largely unharmed in the relatively mild 1989 quake.

The repeat of a 1906-level earthquake -- an overwhelming likelihood during the next 30 years -- will devastate, no matter how San Francisco prepares.

But a unique alignment of selfish, petty political interests has for the past two years squelched a $355,000 research project by the Department of Building Inspection that promised to make such a quake far less dangerous to people and property. The study was designed to identify city structures in greatest danger of collapsing in a 1906-level quake, which would be 32 times as grand as our 1989 tremor. Had the study been allowed to continue, it could have resulted in building code changes that require reinforcement of the city's thousands of vulnerable structures, a surprising proportion of which are in the outlying neighborhoods.

Begun in 2002, the study created a tempest among the political clubs and interest groups that populate San Francisco's suburban fringe. Landlords and homeowner groups didn't want to pay for strengthening work and/or the extra insurance premiums the study's findings might have indirectly generated. Tenant groups didn't want retrofit costs passed along to renters. Real estate interests didn't want buyers to know about dangerous buildings. The powerful head of the Residential Builders Association, who in 2003 reigned as a political fixer, considered the city's chief building inspector, who led the project, an enemy.

The Building Inspection Commission bent to pressure and killed the study in March 2003. It's languished ever since.

"It's very frustrating that it's not being used," says Mary Lou Zoback, the U.S. Geological Survey's coordinator for earthquake hazards for Northern California. "Large-scale disasters are pretty unthinkable, and you'd rather not think about them. But we could do things to save lives and probably save property with modest investment out front."

In the ordinary course of San Francisco, that's the last we'd have heard from the earthquake experts again, until they were interviewed in the Big One's aftermath.

But this month, a miracle seems to have occurred.

Thanks to an apparent act of political courage by our usually feckless mayor, the Department of Building Inspection has been ordered to resurrect the earthquake report. Building Inspection Department head Amy Lee has instructed chief inspector Larry Kornfield to prepare a measure on continuation of the study, to be considered by the Building Inspection Commission in coming weeks.

"I'm charged with opening a door," says Kornfield, adding he's begun discussions with engineering contractors to "see if they can continue their work."

Please don't misinterpret me here. I'm not giving up on the idea that our mayor's an empty suit with a penchant for public relations and patronage and an approach to policy that's rich in uplifting verbiage and poor in real effect. The mayor's supporters have defended Gavin Newsom's pandering, his focus on the PR side of policy, and his obsession with political maneuvering by asking for patience, and by saying that he's building strength to carry out his bold ideas for San Francisco. I haven't joined that faith.

Still, I can't get this latest move out of my mind: Mayor Newsom has done something politically risky, something that will doubtlessly rally new factions against him, something without obvious political benefit, and something that -- get this -- advances the common good. Could the mayor deserve credit in this space for doing something right? He just may.

Watching a presentation by the mayor's disaster czar, Annemarie Conroy, last week was to get a quick lesson in the backward world that lies behind our mayor's glossy exterior.

One might think the Department of Emergency Services, charged with protecting San Franciscans from acts by terrorists and God, would be the last place one would provide a sinecure for a political hack. The department's been charged with spending more than $80 million in federal Homeland Security money during the past three years, as well as coordinating security agencies, hospitals, and other so-called first responders to be ready for disaster. Three years ago, a city grand jury report said the department was in grave disarray. By the time Newsom entered office, it was clear the city needed an expert to guide emergency preparedness in San Francisco, which insurance adjusters consider one of the world's most dangerous cities, thanks to risk from terrorism, fire, tsunami, and earthquakes.

Yet last August the mayor treated the department as if it were an unimportant backwater, hiring Conroy, a longtime patronage beneficiary, as part of a bureaucratic shuffle intended to strengthen the mayor's influence on the Board of Supervisors. Former Mayor Frank Jordan years ago appointed Conroy, his goddaughter, to the Board of Supervisors. Seven years ago, Jordan attempted to rankle then-Mayor Willie Brown by backing an advisory vote criticizing his takeover of the former Navy base at Treasure Island. Brown parried by hiring Conroy to run the former base. And she cemented her place in the patronage universe by remaining loyal to her boss at her godfather's expense.

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