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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

Wednesday, May 25 2005
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.

Last week Conroy described how she's been spending an average $28 million per year in federal money. She's ordered periodic terrorism exercises; sarin gas in a BART car would kill 28 people, a recent such drill showed. A citywide system of siren speakers has been upgraded, so disaster coordinators can shout commands in the appropriate languages in different ethnic neighborhoods. The radios of several public safety departments are now on the same frequency, whereas they weren't before. The city bus system is scheduled to have its radio system retuned soon, too.

But when asked about the shelved 2002 earthquake study -- from which she borrowed about half of the stump PowerPoint presentation she gives to city groups -- Conroy said it lay in the Department of Building Inspection's bailiwick, not in hers.

So, in San Francisco, "emergency preparedness" apparently means the city spends tens of millions of dollars on multilingual sirens and the like, while holding in reserve the $100,000 or so it would take to finish a project designed to make sure buildings don't collapse and kill people before they can hear warnings in their native tongues.

Luckily, the mayor seems to have seen a problem here.

Almost everything San Franciscans know about earthquakes they learned from the experience of 1989 and from reading about 1906, the year of the devastating quake that measured 7.9 on the Richter scale and flattened much of what we now know as central San Francisco.

Unfortunately, that knowledge is pretty much useless; the 1989 quake was a mild pat on the cheek compared to the heavyweight pummeling a 1906-size temblor would give the city. And geologists believe the San Andreas and nearby Hayward faults have built up enough seismic tension over the decades to slip and produce a Big One sometime this generation.

History books from 1906 aren't good primers for imagining a 2006 Big One, either. A great proportion of the city's population has moved into fragile wooden buildings on what were, a century ago, barren sand dunes. And in 1906, city officials lied about the quake's damage, saying fewer than 500 died, when the real figure was in the thousands.

Three years ago geologists, engineers, architects, and other experts determined that a centennial-size quake would leave a pattern of destruction quite different than the vastly weaker 1989 quake. With a force 32 times its sibling's, such a tremor would liquefy the sand under San Francisco's western suburbs, creating a towel-snapping effect that would dramatically amplify the tremor's shock, crumpling the structurally weak buildings common to those areas.

Typical suburban-style San Francisco houses and apartment buildings perch atop a bottom story that's occupied by either a garage bereft of supporting inner walls, or a corner store, which is likewise uninterrupted by strengthening walls. In the event of a sand-liquefying major quake, tens of thousands of these buildings would simply toddle to the ground. Nearly a third of the city's buildings would be damaged in a middling scenario, and in the worst-case scenario, many more would topple. A lot of these buildings aren't insured for earthquakes. So in addition to the thousands of dead and injured, thousands more San Franciscans would be left destitute and homeless.

When the Department of Building Inspection's earthquake study group was called off the job two years ago, it had finished 90 percent of the work, including most of the necessary geological, engineering, and surveying tasks. The 10 percent that was left involved steps the city might take to reduce the loss of life and property in the event of a big quake. The good news: Early indications suggest that minor improvements could have outsize effects.

"The kinds of things we were discussing with the architects on the advisory board included: Is there something a homeowner could do -- say, some $5,000 upgrade to their home -- that might mean the difference between being able to live in their house after an earthquake? If there were a $5,000 item, might people do that, and might they get a significant break on their earthquake insurance? Is there something that, as people are remodeling their homes, they could say, 'We're going to do a $70,000 kitchen remodel; if we add $5,000 worth of work, could we make your house safe after an earthquake?'" says Zoback, the USGS expert.

Installing steel skeletons inside easily collapsed bottom-floor garages and storefronts, or putting reinforcement walls in these structures, are examples of such relatively inexpensive protection.

Still, tenant advocates will surely be loath to have any such improvement costs passed on to renters. Landlords and homeowners may take the short view of these expenses, too.

But there are ways around such pocketbook opposition. Berkeley, for example, has a portion of its real-estate transfer tax revenues set aside for refunds to owners who make seismic upgrades. Public funding is another option. After the 1989 earthquake, voters approved $350 million in earthquake safety bonds to retrofit homes. The post-quake hoopla subsided, however, and much of that bond capacity remains untapped.

"If there's a bright side, it's that those buildings are easily retrofitted," says Kornfield. "There are lots of fixes there that can get a building off the collapse hazard list. We're still looking at where there are impacts, how can we require or incentivise improvements. We're a long way from that, but the project was stopped at an early phase. We can now go through a real process that can document a train of logic that leads to public policy."

"Policy" -- it's a word the mayor's office uses ad nauseam in bogus inner-city press events, in the PowerPoint presentations of patronage-appointee department heads, in defending muddled policies such as "Care Not Cash." In this case, however, a Newsom underling is using this word in a novel way. He's describing a policy in which the mayor has decided to expend political capital to make San Francisco a safer place to live.

I hope he weathers the coming storm.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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