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San Francisco Earthquake Planners Prepare for the 'Big One'

The intense earthquake and aftershocks that devastated the Kashmir region of Pakistan in recent days is a reminder that a major earthquake could hit major fault lines around the world at any time. If a massive earthquake were to shake the city of San Francisco in the west coast U.S. state of California, the resulting disaster could be worse than the devastation in New Orleans, Louisiana, caused by hurricane Katrina.

Earthquake experts say it is a matter of when, not if, a huge earthquake will hit San Francisco, California, one of the most beautiful and popular tourist cities in the United States.

David Schwartz is an earthquake expert in the San Francisco area. He says nearby fault lines, cracks in the earth's crust, are shifting, and will eventually cause an immense earthquake. "And we've estimated that in the next 30 years, we've got a 62 percent chance, that's almost two out of three, of having a large earthquake, really in the urban center. And that's something to be really concerned about."

The last major earthquake in San Francisco occurred almost 100 years ago, in 1906, killing more than 3,000 people. Buildings toppled and fires broke out, destroying much of the city. In 1989, another smaller earthquake struck south of San Francisco, leaving 63 dead and 4,000 injured.

Although a number of structures in the city have been built or fortified to withstand earthquakes, many other bridges, hospitals, schools, and buildings have not been adequately upgraded.

This greatly concerns Laurence Kornfield, a chief building inspector in San Francisco. "We're concerned about, when we see things like the earthquake that happened in Pakistan just recently, and we saw certain building types that failed there, and we have similar building types here, and we expect to have similar ground motion here."

If the buildings are destroyed, their gas and water lines could rupture, making the likelihood of fire very substantial, says San Francisco fire chief, Joanne Hayes-White. She says the devastation caused by hurricane Katrina made more San Francisco residents think about what might happen if a disaster strikes them.

"I certainly think it was a wake-up call, not just for emergency services, but for the community…and if there was any good from it, I think there is a greater awareness that you're prepared personally, whether it's your home or office." she said.

Steve Walter, an earthquake scientist, helped put together a booklet that advises people in the region how to prepare for an earthquake. "I think that was the hope that this book would lay out what the hazards are and make them real to people. This could happen to me. And then give them the solutions that they can begin to implement."

In the past month, about one million of these booklets were given to area residents, including Bill Lane, a former U.S. Ambassador who says he recognizes the threat, "So we're very conscious of earthquakes, their threat, and how we can help prevent as much damage and loss of life as possible."

Harold Brooks, head of the San Francisco American Red Cross chapter, says residents should have an emergency earthquake kit ready, since they could be without food or shelter for days. He says the Red Cross has plans in place for emergency shelters. "Everybody knows that there is the possibility that we're going to have to shelter as many as 300,000, maybe even a half a million people. And the only way we can do that is if we're prepared for it, if we've done the training, and communicated very effectively with the community."

Earthquake expert David Schwartz says even though there are no real earthquake-proof buildings, upgrading San Francisco's infrastructure is essential.

"Right now, for us, it's a race against time... to see the freeway overpasses, the water system, the electrical transmission system, all of this is upgraded, so that when the earthquake happens, which it will, we can ride through it a little bit more easily, and come out much better on the end."

How much better is anybody's guess? But officials in San Francisco say they are preparing the best they can for the next earthquake they call "the big one."