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Earthquake-Prone San Francisco Worries About the 'Big One'

San Francisco suffered a devastating earthquake nearly 100 years ago, and experts say a similar quake would cause far more damage today. Local officials are taking measures to get ready for the next "big one."

In August 2001, federal emergency officials outlined three hypothetical disasters: a terrorist attack on New York, a devastating hurricane in New Orleans, and a destructive earthquake in San Francisco. Two of the scenarios have occurred already. Scientists say they don't know when, but the third will also happen.

Seismologists say earthquakes threaten 60 percent of California residents. In Los Angeles, the worst-case scenario is a simultaneous breach of two segments of the San Andreas Fault east of the city. It is one of California many unstable divisions between the earth's geological plates. In the northern part of the state, the San Andreas and Hayward faults threaten San Francisco. The city is densely populated, so most scientists expect more damage from a quake around the San Francisco Bay.

David Schwartz of the U.S. Geological Survey says the region is riddled with fault lines, which could rupture at any time.

"The Bay area has the highest density of active faults per square mile of any urban center in the US. And we've estimated that in the next 30 years, we've got a 62 percent probability of having a 6.7 [magnitude earthquake] or larger in the urban center," he explained.

A magnitude 6.7 earthquake would cause serious damage and loss of life. Depending on the quake's size and epicenter, the death toll could reach the thousands.

It has all happened before, when San Francisco was much smaller.

James Dalessandro is a San Francisco activist and author of a work of historical fiction called 1906: A Novel. He says a rupture along a fault line is only the start of the problem, as we learn from an earlier quake that devastated this city.

"In 1906, within 10 minutes, 56 fires broke out in the city of San Francisco. You must be prepared for multiple, simultaneous ignitions," he explained.

Water lines may be cut, as they were in 1906, hampering the efforts of firefighters. The fire chief at that time was a victim of the disaster. The writer says many police officers and other emergency personnel would be unable to reach the city today from their homes in the suburbs.

"The bridges are likely to be out," he added. "Most the freeways around San Francisco are built on landfill. They're likely to be inoperable. The streets will be damaged and you'll see one of the worst traffic jams in history."

Communities east of San Francisco are protected from the San Joaquin River by hundreds of kilometers of levees, like those that failed recently in the hurricane in New Orleans, inundating that city. Geologist David Schwartz says communities not hit by the earthquake or the fires could be flooded.

"Under the dynamic shaking of an earthquake, we're really expecting to see a lot of levee failures, flooding, loss of water, and this could be extremely serious," he said.

San Francisco and surrounding communities could be cut off from help for days.

Harold Brooks, the chief executive of the American Red Cross for the San Francisco Bay region, says 300,000 people could be displaced in an earthquake. The organization has plans in place for emergency shelters. He says it also is asking citizens to help in a disaster, and provides training in first aid and emergency planning.

"We really want to prepare or train one in four people in the Bay area so that they know what to do, so they build a plan for their family, their loved ones," said Mr. Brooks.

This resident takes the message seriously.

"My name is Bill Lane and I live in Portola Valley, California, which is right on the San Andreas fault," he said.

Mr. Lane, who has lived through many earthquakes, was picking up leaflets prepared by federal officials and the American Red Cross to distribute in his community, just south of San Francisco.

San Francisco fire chief Joanne Hayes-White says she has 350 firefighters on duty on any given day, too few to cope with a major natural disaster. However, a 1989 quake that rocked this region also taught a lesson, that citizen volunteers can supplement the work of the fire department. More than 11,000 people have taken fire department training courses in disaster preparedness. She adds that Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the US Gulf Coast, made Americans more aware of natural disasters.

"In a post-Katrina environment, I think it's been a wake-up call for a lot of parts of the country, as well as our board of supervisors here," she noted. "Forever the optimist, I'm hoping that when it comes time to make difficult budget decisions in lean economic times, that the legislative body understands the importance to have appropriate funding directed towards public safety departments."

Local officials hope to train the city's 30,000 public employees as emergency workers, to provide added help in a major disaster.