Our infrastructure will kill us in the big one

Over 15 years ago, in the late afternoon, a 6.9 earthquake struck Central California, killing 63 and famously damaging the Bay Bridge along with many roadways throughout the Bay Area, in addition to wreaking havoc in San Francisco’s Marina District. It was a formidable earthquake, though by no means the largest possible quake that could strike in the region, and the images from the quake were quite compelling — photos and video of the damaged Bay Bridge in particular were widely circulated because they were so mesmerising, and so jaw-dropping. A huge feat of engineering broke and crumpled like paper.

California lives with the constant threat of ‘the big one,’ something residents like to discuss amongst themselves periodically with an almost perverse sense of pride. Other parts of the country have tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, but we have earthquakes and wildfires. There’s something peculiarly terrifying about the thought of the earth bucking and heaving under you, shaking you off like a horsefly, and California sits along the meeting of two plates, with a series of complicated fault lines running up and down the state. While it’s not along the much more terrifying Cascadia Subduction Zone, California has become famous for its quakes in a way that Oregon and Washington haven’t, and part of that may be due to their frequency — and the state’s large population, a large chunk of which is concentrated in the Bay Area, which is particularly vulnerable to quakes.

There are a few worse spots early colonists could have picked for establishing beachheads in California, but the Bay Area was definitely very high on the list. In addition to hosting a range of faults, the region has been built up, covering many wetlands and shallow areas with fill. All this fill is subject to liquefaction in major quakes — as seen in the Marina District, which practically fell apart when the fill used to create it started to tremble apart. Los Angeles is also not ideally situated not just in terms of having no water and thus having to rely on supplies from elsewhere in the state, which is probably a separate issue but one I’m still resentful about, but also because it, too, sits along major fault lines.

Scores of small tremblors rock the state constantly; an earthquake has to be fairly significant for me to notice it and I often discount it as a passing plane or something else entirely until the USGS pings me with an earthquake alert. Shifts of the earth are a regular fact of life here, explaining why houses settle so quickly, why things crack and fail as structures move, and why the state has a fairly rigorous building code for new construction, especially commercial structures. Architects and developers use some extremely sophisticated technology in an attempt to stave off earthquake damage by allowing buildings to sway with the earth, for example, limiting structural damage and protecting occupants so they have a chance to survive.

The problem is that older infrastructure is not keeping pace, and the state has a serious deferred maintenance problem. California as a whole has been struggling with budget problems for decades, making serious cuts right and left to a wide range of important programs. These include inspections to public works projects as well as funds to maintain and upgrade them. While the state spent billions on the East Span of the Bay Bridge and will spend untold amounts fixing the damage that’s made the bridge almost undrivable within a few years of its christening, it’s still unable to meet basic infrastructure needs.

I generally avoid driving on the Bay Bridge because I hate going into the city, but I also don’t trust the new span any further than I can throw it, given the constant and sometimes conflicting stream of information about its damaged rods and other problems. I’m not particularly inclined to drive on a structurally unsound bridge in the middle of a fault zone. I also don’t particularly like taking the Transbay Tunnel, because BART is also suffering from severe infrastructure problems. It’s not just that the system wasn’t built to handle its current ridership or to scale up comfortably as more people started riding, but that key infrastructure issues are becoming a routine problem — see the sudden uptick in track fires and broken rails. It’s the ferry for me, when possible, because at least on a boat I can make a bid for shore if I have to.

But these are far from the only public works issues in California. The state would be thrown into chaos if it experienced another Loma Prieta or another Northridge (6.7), let alone a bigger earthquake. For perspective, the 1906 quake has been estimated as a 7.8. It actually caused some parts of the state to move. When California’s faults go, they really go — though not quite in the way Hollywood claims they do. The US Geological Service believes that anything over an 8.3 is highly unlikely, but remember, earthquake intensity is measured in magnitude, not a linear scale. That means an 8.3 is a lot bigger than a 7.8.

The state experiences earthquakes constantly, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that a medium to large-scale quake will happen in the near future. It would be surprising if it didn’t, because eventually, things have to give. Maybe it will be in the next ten minutes, or ten years, or hundred years. If it happens in the near future, though, California will not be prepared for it, because the state hasn’t invested in infrastructure and earthquake retrofitting. That’s going to lead to needless property damage, but more than that, untold numbers of deaths. And those are going to be on the government’s head, for failing to prioritise the safety of California residents.

Image: Maximum Speed 50, Joe Lewis, Flickr