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THE BAY AREA QUAKE : Pressure Points : WHAT WORKED, WHAT DIDN'T, AND WHY : PREPAREDNESS : Real Disaster Has Eerie Similarities to Emergency Drill

October 20, 1989|LARRY GREEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like hundreds of thousands of Bay Area residents, Herb Brosowsky closed his San Francisco cheese warehouse early Tuesday so he could get home in time to watch the 5 p.m. start of the World Series telecast. Getting there was unusually easy.

"There was almost no traffic," said Brosowsky, president of Northwest Cheese Distributors. On this star-crossed day he drove with an ease that belied the rush hour from one side of San Francisco to the other en route to his house near Golden Gate Park. "People were already home or in Candlestick (Park). Even the sidewalks were almost empty."

A major sporting event, although not necessarily a World Series between two Bay Area teams, was something disaster planners included in their most recent earthquake drill last August. Because it got people home earlier than usual and off the streets, the baseball championship may have helped keep injuries and fatalities from being even worse in the nation's second-deadliest earthquake.

Planners seemed prepared for a range of subtle contingencies. It was as if local, county, state and federal agencies were trying to march, if not always in step, to the same music.

In recent years, some regional officials sounded sour notes, contending that the Bay Area was not prepared for an earthquake registering above 6 in magnitude. In fact, in the August drill federal officials found several glitches that needed correcting, but they had not yet completed their report when Tuesday's temblor shook the area.

But disaster, often the mother of discord, produced relative harmony this time as the city coped with Tuesday's 6.9 quake. Even segments of the San Francisco community that had never attended a rehearsal joined in the performance.

The August earthquake drill with federal, state and local officials foreshadowed Tuesday's quake with eerie similarities. They simulated the collapse of a portion of the Bay Bridge and of portions of elevated freeways, problems with water pressure, gas leaks and fires. And in the drill, as in Tuesday's earthquake, there were frustrating delays in learning the extent of the disaster.

It was hours before planners and managers had reasonably accurate reconnaissance by their own staffs.

One lesson is that people involved in disasters are quick to begin assisting one another without the intervention of government. Residents of San Francisco almost instinctively seemed to know what to do. Those who did not could turn to their telephone directories for detailed instructions.

Complaints may yet surface, as they did last month in South Carolina after several seemingly smooth days of reactions to Hurricane Hugo's widespread devastation. In fact, it was the demands that Hugo put on the Federal Emergency Management Agency that delayed completing an assessment of the August drill in California.

But because of the August exercise, the federal government was able to move more quickly in coming to San Francisco's aid. "Just by our having known about (glitches in the drill) made us more sensitive to them," said Larry Zensinger, the Federal Emergency Management Agency official who managed the drill.

Still, initial indications suggest that in San Francisco and adjacent communities, planning, luck and a lower-than-expected casualty toll combined for a relatively successful response in the critical hours immediately after the quake. Preparation seemed to be laced with thoughtful nuances.

For example, some owners of stores specializing in cellular telephones were called at home during the night and asked to open their shops and to reserve their supplies for city workers. This approach allowed the city to purchase state-of-the-art equipment in a quickly changing field of technology when it was most needed. The preparation required only keeping an up-to-date list of the shop owners.

Similarly, the Fire Department anticipated broken water mains in some areas of the city where the soil is particularly vulnerable during earthquakes and devised a system for pumping water from the Bay inland several blocks to fight fires. It allowed firefighters to eventually control a natural gas-fed blaze that destroyed several apartment buildings in the Marina District as the nation watched on television.

"Movement of the ground broke . . . water mains," Battalion Chief Jack Hickey said. "We turned to our portable high-pressure system--our own creation." The system uses a series of trucks, each with half a mile of five-inch fire hose to pump seawater through a series of portable hydrants.

There was evidence through the night and at daybreak of the detail in the city's plan. With street lights out, volunteers directed traffic at intersections, using flares distributed from passing police cars.

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