Earthquake alert

Fear on a fault line

Posted: Monday, April 03, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO - From the back of a government SUV, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff watches downtown San Francisco flash by, its high-rises built on the ashes of an earthquake and firestorm a century ago.

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The city is all sunshine and hustle-bustle, with no hint of the devastating 1906 quake. But Chertoff is paid to think about the worst-case scenario. In a ride-along interview with The Associated Press, he ticks off his nightmare images of the next Big One.

"Collapse of buildings. Fires. People stranded on a bridge which is in partial collapse. Flooding in certain parts of the levee system."

Yet Chertoff is confident, like elected and emergency-management officials at almost every level of government, that the region is well positioned to recover from a large earthquake. It's the indifference of average citizens that keeps these officials up at night.

Seven in 10 Californians believe a big earthquake will strike the state and affect them, but only 22 percent consider themselves well prepared, a poll conducted for The Associated Press found. Most people don't have the basics: multiday survival stockpiles, a plan for contacting loved ones and first aid or other training, said Bruce Burtch, spokesman for the American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter.

"That's just not acceptable," Mayor Gavin Newsom said. "Apathy is our enemy."

"Ray Nagin had emergency-operations plans just like I do," he said in an AP interview, referring to the mayor of New Orleans and the collapse of those government plans in the face of Hurricane Katrina. "People need to be prepared to take care of themselves."

Hurricane Katrina and the April 18 centenary of the earthquake - the most damaging in American history - have prompted a new wave of reflection.

The Red Cross is trying to get 1 million people in the Bay Area trained for emergency response. The U.S. Geological Survey is rolling out glitzy new computer models aimed at regular folks that depict dangerous quake zones. What is billed as the largest conference ever held on earthquake preparedness will bring 2,500 scientists, engineers and policy-makers here during the anniversary week.

The events mark the 100 years since April 18, 1906, when San Francisco residents were jarred awake at 5:12 a.m. by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake.

The megalopolis is built atop seismic faults, and the clock is ticking, if not gonging. According to the USGS, there's a 62 percent probability that at least one earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or greater will strike in the San Francisco Bay Area before 2032.

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