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Quantifying the big one

Earthquake study identifies campus and regional vulnerabilities; physical damage could reach $2.6 billion

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs
Posted May 3, 2000

Seismologists predict with 70 percent certainty that an earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or greater will strike the San Francisco Bay area sometime in the next 30 years, crippling campus operations and seriously disrupting the local and regional economy.

According to a new earthquake risk assessment report, commissioned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Berkeley, a major temblor will inflict up to $2.6 billion in physical damage to the campus, close half to three-quarters of Berkeley's central campus and laboratories, and put about 44,000 people in peril if it hits during the day.

"The University of California remains highly vulnerable to earthquake losses despite extraordinary efforts to improve the life safety of hazardous buildings," said Architecture Professor Mary Comerio, principal author of the new report from the Institute of Urban and Regional Development. "But Berkeley isn't in this alone. This study is a wake-up call to all of California. Large institutions and urban centers throughout California are at high risk of suffering widespread damage in the next major earthquake."

Titled "The Economic Benefits of a Disaster-Resistant University," the report is the culmination of 18 months of research led by Comerio and co-principal investigators Vitelmo Bertero, professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering, and John Quigley, professor of economics and public policy. It is part of FEMA's Disaster-Resistant Universities Initiative, a nationwide program to help institutions reduce their vulnerability to earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters.

According to the report, of the seven active faults slicing through the San Francisco Bay area, the San Andreas, Hayward-Rodgers Creek and Calaveras faults pose the greatest threats.

A magnitude 7.0 quake on the northern end of the Hayward Fault, which runs through Berkeley, would inflict widespread damage, not only on the campus but in the local economy. An independent study determined that the university typically contributes $1.23 billion to the nine-county Bay area economy each year and produces more than 20,000 jobs.

If the campus were to close for one year, first-year losses in Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties would total 8,900 jobs, $680 million in personal income and $861 million in sales.

Severe damage and an interruption in campus operations would take its toll in the regional economy as well, the report states. "If Berkeley were forced to close, its supply of highly trained professionals, especially in science and engineering, would be cut off," said economist John Quigley. "That would have a dramatic impact on the regional economy and, in particular, on the Silicon Valley."

The report notes that a single alumnus with a master's degree contributes roughly $1 million to the state gross domestic product and $100,000 in state tax revenue in today's dollars over a lifetime. "Short-term closures and reduced research capacity will affect the retention and recruitment of faculty and students to the area," Quigley said, "and impede the growth of Northern California's high-tech industry for years to come."

The most serious consequence of significant damage to the Berkeley campus could be loss of the "next" Silicon Valley to another state.

However, estimating the toll is the first step toward reducing losses. "It takes a much longer time to revive a campus than it does to just put the buildings back up," said Vice Provost Nicholas Jewell.

Seismic upgrading has been in full force since the 1997 launch of the $1 billion SAFER project (Seismic Action Plan for Facilities Enhancement and Renewal), to seismically restore buildings in dire need of earthquake retrofitting. Seven campus buildings rated in "very poor" condition were earmarked for immediate seismic upgrading.

The first of those major retrofit building projects has been completed and six are currently under way (see construction update, page 3). By 2006, retrofits for 10 major central campus buildings will be completed.

Safeguarding the contents of Berkeley's many laboratories and research facilities, including equipment, computers and instruments, is a key aspect of earthquake preparedness that has not been addressed yet. Damage in a major temblor was estimated at $625 million to $2.6 billion, or about one-third of the replacement value of the campus. Comerio recommended an aggressive nonstructural mitigation effort.

"A program to redistribute computer networks, research equipment, machinery, $1-million electron microscopes and other expensive instruments would make a big difference in the amount of damage this campus sustains in a major earthquake," she said. "The value of our building contents is about $3 billion, but much of that equipment is concentrated in a handful of laboratories and research centers.

"We can take measures to house some of this equipment in other buildings and redistribute the wealth," she said. "That is a very inexpensive, preventive measure for reducing our losses in a major earthquake."

Earthquake: where and when?

Earthquake prediction is an imperfect science. Many seismologists, geologists and geophysicists will spend their careers chasing the elusive question: Where and when?

In most earthquake-prone regions of the world, the dangers are largely invisible. The great fault lines and fracture zones lie deep within bedrock, where only sophisticated seismological instruments can pinpoint their location. But in California, where the San Andreas Fault is as well known as the Golden Gate Bridge, the earthquake is a palpable presence, its scar in many places clearly visible.

The northern portion of this 1,120-kilometer-long (700-mile) fault is one of three fractures in the earth's crust likely to erupt in the near future. The Hayward-Rodgers Creek and Calaveras faults are the other likely suspects.

For major urban areas near these faults, such as San Francisco and Berkeley, geography is destiny. The bay region lies on the boundary zone between two of the major tectonic plates that make up the earth's outer shell: the Pacific and North American Plates.

The Pacific Plate has been grinding horizontally past the North American Plate for 10 million years at an average rate of about 5 centimeters (2 inches) a year, according to Robert Uhrhammer, a seismologist in the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory. Land on the west side of the fault zone, on the Pacific Plate, is moving in a northwesterly direction relative to the land on the east side of the fault zone, which is part of the North American Plate.

This left lateral "slip-strike" movement builds up strain that will eventually be released in earthquakes on the region's many faults. Currently Uhrahamer and many of his colleagues predict a 70 percent likelihood that a major earthquake measuring 6.7 or greater on the Richter scale will jostle the region in the next 30 years.

In the region's rapidly growing eastern valleys, four faults slash through Contra Costa, Alameda, Solano, Santa Clara, San Benito and Napa counties. The U.S. Geological Survey recently calculated the odds of major quakes on these faults: they declared a 30 percent chance of one or more magnitude 6.7 or greater earthquakes occurring somewhere on the Calaveras Fault, Concord-Green Valley Fault, Mount Diablo Thrust and Greenville Fault before 2030.

Residents living near the Pacific Coast in burgeoning San Mateo, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties are sandwiched between the San Andreas and San Gregorio faults. New data have allowed the USGS to calculate the first earthquake probabilities for the San Gregorio Fault and to better estimate probabilities for the San Andreas Fault. Combined, these two faults have a 25 percent chance of producing one or more magnitude 6.7 or greater quakes in these coastal areas before 2030.

Magnitude 6.7 or greater quakes can cause damage throughout the Bay region, but even smaller quakes could be serious if centered in an urban area. Scientists believe there is an 80 percent chance that one or more magnitude 6 to 6.6 quakes will occur in the Bay region before 2030.



May 3 - 9, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 32)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
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Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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