New York Times Chides S.F. with Earthquake Hot Take

On the 112th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, the New York Times chimes in with a doom-and-gloom forecast that we’re all goners.

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Wednesday morning, San Franciscans gathered at 5:12 a.m. at Lotta’s Fountain, as we do every year, to commemorate the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake. But the New York Times commemorated the earthquake anniversary with a thinly veiled prediction that San Franciscans will perish in earthquakes because of our Salesforce Towers and leaning condominiums.

Today’s Times article San Francisco’s Big Seismic Gamble does contain some legitimately kick-ass interactive time-lapse photos, and a dazzling graphic showing which parts of the city are built on landfill, mud, or clay. The actual text of the article, though, conflates skyscrapers with soft-story buildings, ignores structural engineer consensus that high-rises are among the city’s safest buildings, and — most curiously — makes no mention that many of these skyscrapers named in their analysis completely survived the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

San Francisco Redditors are having a field day picking apart this article’s various shortcomings, but one segment stands out.

Right now the code says a structure must be engineered to have a 90 percent chance of avoiding total collapse. But many experts believe that is not enough.

“Ten percent of buildings will collapse,” said Lucy Jones, the former leader of natural hazards research at the United States Geological Survey who is leading a campaign to make building codes in California stronger. “I don’t understand why that’s acceptable.”

Never mind the Times doesn’t even cite what “code” they’re referring to. A “90 percent chance of avoiding total collapse” does not mean that ten percent of buildings are guaranteed to collapse! We would put clap emoji between each of those bold-faced words if we could.

We don’t mean to undermine the earthquake preparedness measures you should take. The SF Fire Department’s Neighborhood Emergency Response Team has an excellent Google Doc with ‘Go Bag’ and Emergency Kit checklists. This is far more useful reading than the NYT’s scaremonger article, which has outstanding graphics, but also a few faults in its earthquake analysis.

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