When, not if: how do San Franciscans live with the threat of the next quake?
The earthquake question comes up in two out of every three transactions that Eileen Bermingham handles. Demand for San Francisco property has hit new heights in recent years, forcing buyers to offer far above the asking price — and things don’t appear to be slowing, even in the usually sluggish early months of the year. “It’s been particularly hectic,” confirms Bermingham, an agent with Zephyr Real Estate, which sells houses all over the city.
But the earthquake question is always in the background.
Bermingham gets specific requests from clients for newer homes built under more stringent building codes, houses that have been retrofitted for earthquakes, or specific neighbourhoods that pose less risk. Many parts of the city are built on landfill, and maps highlight large swathes that are at risk of ‘liquefaction’ — the soil literally turning from solid to liquid — in the event of a large earthquake.
“A lot of it comes down to being at least knowledgeable about what you’re getting into,” Bermingham says of investing in the city. “You don’t want to find out later that you’re on a liquefaction zone.”
That’s something many people found out the hard way in 1989, when a 6.9-magnitude earthquake struck the San Francisco region. About 28,000 structures in the region were damaged by the quake, including a sizeable chunk of San Francisco’s Marina District, a neighbourhood with front-row views of the Golden Gate Bridge built on landfill poured into the bay in the early 20th century.
This unsteady ground was itself the leftover rubble of another disaster, the estimated 7.8-magnitude earthquake of 1906 that left 3,000 people dead. Though the earthquake was immense, most of the damage was caused by a fire in its aftermath that spread across nearly five square miles of the city, consuming 28,000 buildings and leaving more than half of the population homeless. Despite the century that’s since passed, this disaster has left a deep mental scar on the city. The spectre of 1906 is both a guide to prepare, and a warning of what could happen again.
And the next “big one” could come any day. Between now and 2038, there’s a 99.7% chance of a 6.7-or-larger earthquake striking somewhere in California. That’s according to a 2008 report from the US Geological Survey, which estimates that there’s a 63% probability of a big earthquake hitting the San Francisco region. The two faults flanking San Francisco — the northern San Andreas and the Hayward — have a 21% chance and a 31% chance, respectively. Clearly that’s not a sure bet, but if the experts are right, San Francisco will probably be shaking hard again sometime soon.
It’s a threat not lost on locals. Byron Davis is one of Bermingham’s clients, and he was cautious about homes in damage-prone parts of the city when he was looking — mostly because of the risk, but also because he happens to be a vibration consultant, who helps design buildings and laboratories to be extremely resistant to tiny vibrations. “My mind is tuned to think about these kinds of issues,” he says. “I don’t actually do any seismic work but I work around people that do. I hear the kind of language they use and it scares me. They talk about ‘when’, not ‘if’.”
The house Davis and his wife ended up buying was built in 1928, long before building codes were modernised in the 1970s to account for seismic issues. He says he plans to retrofit its foundations against seismic risks, but knows there’s only so much he can do in the face of a major earthquake. His house is about 200 feet from a liquefaction zone, and though he is pretty confident about its safety, he does wonder how accurately those liquefaction maps are drawn. Ultimately, he says, the choice of where to buy was driven more by the neighborhood than the thought of a future earthquake.
“There are so few houses that are for sale that you don’t get to do much picking and choosing on a basis like that,” he says.
Even the tech companies who have been swarming into the city are pushing any earthquake concerns into the background. Startups like Square and Pinterest have located their offices in the liquefaction zone that is the South of Market, or SoMa, neighbourhood, as have bigger companies like Yahoo! and Yelp. Rachel Walker, a Yelp spokesperson, brushes the earthquake concern aside, saying the company’s new headquarters, a historic 1925 building, went through “substantial renovation, including significant earthquake retrofitting”. Many other stone and brick buildings in the city have undergone similar retrofits, in which foundations are replaced or steel framing is added.
Most of the risk will likely fall on homeowners and renters. A 2013 report from the San Francisco Public Press found that there could be as many as 58,000 people living in housing units at major risk of collapse during a large earthquake. The city has a mandatory retrofit program for such buildings, but progress has been slow.
One way people can protect themselves, at least financially, is earthquake insurance — but few do, and it’s not required. Of those homeowners with insurance policies in San Francisco, less than 10% have earthquake insurance. That’s according to the California Earthquake Authority, an entity established by the state legislature to insure against earthquakes after most insurers stopped issuing policies. They were nearly bankrupted by 1994’s 6.7-magnitude Northridge earthquake in Southern California — they’d underestimated potential losses from earthquakes, and they ended up paying out more than $12bn in claims. Most of the reason so few people have earthquake insurance today is that its cost has risen to reflect the larger potential payouts from earthquake damages.
An earthquake policy can cost as much again, if not more, than a typical homeowner’s insurance policy, according to Kyle Cliff, a salesman with Liberty Mutual Insurance in the Bay Area. That can add another $1,500 a year, depending on the house. And with a 10% or 15% deductible, the policy would only pay off if there’s major damage to a home. Cliff says he sells maybe a dozen policies a year.
“Usually when I do it’s to people from out of state,” Cliff says. “They turn on the news and what do they see? Earthquakes.”
He says locals are less likely to consider the expense because they’ve experienced so many earthquakes but so little catastrophic damage. For example, Los Angeles residents woke up to a 4.4-magnitude earthquake on 17 March — large enough to rattle some nerves, but not enough to cause even minor damage.
But Glenn Pomeroy, chief executive of the California Earthquake Authority, argues it’s those catastrophic events people should really be insuring themselves against. “This insurance enterprise isn’t there to take care of the little things that might happen after a minor earthquake. We’re here to help make sure someone has the financial strength to get about their lives after their home has been substantially damaged during an A map from the University of California-Berkeley showing areas of central San Francisco susceptible to liquefaction in the event of a major quake
The California Earthquake Authority has issued about three-quarters of the 841,000 earthquake insurance policies in California. Pomeroy says the authority has about $10bn in claims-paying capacity — enough to handle even a devastating big one, at least for those with insurance. But in a city where 90% of homeowners aren’t insured against earthquakes, the risks are acute. “I think there’s definitely a situation where a major earthquake could really disrupt life here,” says Patrick Otellini, Director of Earthquake Safety for the County and City of San Francisco. “San Francisco is a very resilient city. We’ve always bounced back. So I think that drive and that hope to recover is there, but those dangers are real.”
Ultimately, Otellini is confident that local retrofit requirements and the city’s 30-year Earthquake Safety Implementation Program will help the city to withstand a major earthquake — adding that if property owners are proactive about implementing mitigation measures, they’ll reduce the damage they and the city as a whole suffers, even if they don’t opt to invest in earthquake insurance.
Pomeroy, though, makes the case that the more protection people have the better. “Some people think earthquake insurance is too expensive, and if they live in a high-risk area I’m not going to try to argue that it’s cheap. But I would suggest that there’s a cost of being uninsured that outweighs the cost of that insurance policy when that event happens.”
And if the USGS is right, that major event has a very high probability of occurring. So why is it that San Franciscans, with all their experience of minor earthquakes and the occasional major one, are willing to take on the risk of living in a city so prone to major devastation?
“People don’t understand probability very well, even if you’re relatively well educated,” says David Ropeik, author of RISK! A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You. The problem, he says, is that numbers are abstractions, and we have trouble processing them cognitively.
“You could describe an earthquake in terms of knocking things down; that’s a tangible thing. But saying there’s a 99% chance that in the next 30 years the next big one will hit is an abstraction. The entire risk language of probability pales in its influence against the more tangible factors.”
Ropeik argues that one of the central components of risk perception is control and choice. If we’re forced to move to a risky city like San Francisco, we’ll probably be more attuned to its earthquake risk than if we choose to move there of our own volition. “If we have a choice as to whether to engage in it, we’re less afraid,” he says. Many in San Francisco have made that choice, fully conscious of its inherent risk.
“Earthquakes are just one example of how we all have a problem with risks that are very infrequent, low probability, despite their high consequence,” Ropeik says. “Cities around the world are exposed to a variety of low-likelihood but high-consequence events, and because of our psychological nature, we’re not very good at assessing the risks.”