Pub. Date:
University of California Press
Magnitude 8 / Edition 1

Magnitude 8 / Edition 1

by Philip L. Fradkin
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520221192
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/29/1999
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

Philip L. Fradkin is the author of six acclaimed books on the American West, including The Seven States of California (California, 1997) and A River No More (California, 1996). He shared a Pulitzer Prize as a journalist, served as assistant secretary in the state agency responsible for overseeing seismic matters, and for the last twenty years has lived adjacent to the San Andreas Fault in California's Marin County.

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Chapter One

(the Present)


    It was an ordinary October weekday late in the dry season, hot and windy and fogless as it can be at that time of year. Earthquake weather, some would later say, but that was hindsight.

    The time was 2:14 P.M. Small children played in elementary-school yards, older students studied in high schools or universities, and adults labored in downtown high-rises. The rush-hour traffic was just beginning to build on the Bay Area's numerous bridges and elevated freeways.

    A technical writer stood in a window of an office building overlooking Market Street. She stared uncomprehendingly at a small wave that moved down the broad commercial corridor, lifting and then depositing everything in its path. Nothing was disturbed. A moment later the destructive wave hit.

    An emergency planner for a large corporation ascended from the Bay Area Rapid Transit station. He heard a deep rumbling noise that seemed to come from underneath the city. Almost instantaneously the first shock struck him at the top of the stairs. He clutched the handrail and looked across Market Street. Like a vertical snake making its way across the azure sky, there were three bows in the undulating Grown Zellerbach Building.

    Earthquake, he thought. He ran, then crawled through a shower of concrete and glass to the doorway of a rapidly disintegrating forty-story building whose steel welds had been cracked in the 1989 quake.

    For the two German couples in the rental car, there was no warning in the small coastal village of Point Reyes Station thirty miles to the north of the city. The car windows were closed. The air conditioner and radio were on, although the light rock music had just turned to static. The car's shocks absorbed the first minor blows.

    The driver parked across the street from a restaurant in the shade of an abandoned two-story brick building. The heavy Spanish roof tiles and red bricks buried the four tourists in an avalanche of debris loosened by a force that was the equivalent of a large underground nuclear explosion.

    Twenty miles to the south of San Francisco the afternoon wind ruffled the surface of Lower Crystal Springs Reservoir. A keen observer would have noticed the crosshatched pattern of the waves that overlay the fault line. The fish jumped clear of the water's disturbed surface, as if their natural habitat had become a hot frying pan.

    As the ground began to sway, the suburban strollers and joggers on Sawyer Camp Trail, which parallels the eastern shoreline of the reservoir, felt nauseous and staggered. They were knocked to the ground when the earth shook with a motion akin to riding an out-of-control subway train without the benefit of support. They curled protectively into fetuslike shapes on the vibrating asphalt pavement of the trail. Some lay as they were; others attempted unsuccessfully to rise as the earth shuddered violently for one minute and twenty-three seconds.

    The worst was yet to come for these huddled figures.

    The powerful earthquake was centered under the San Andreas Reservoir, just upstream from Lower Crystal Springs Reservoir. The long fault derived its name from the San Andreas Valley that had lain submerged for 130 years beneath the reservoirs.

    Most of the casualties occurred shortly after the earthquake, when two dams collapsed and fires erupted throughout the region.

    The San Andreas Dam, completed in 1869, barely survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It was no match for the magnitude 8 event whose shallow source lay underneath the old earth-filled structure.

    The west side of the dam was jerked twelve feet northward. The face crumpled. From slow motion to fast forward and accompanied by a roaring sound resembling multiple jet engines, the water cascaded downstream toward Crystal Springs Dam, engulfing the stunned suburbanites on the trail.

    The second dam, a concrete-block structure, was built in 1890 and had been designated a California Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Crystal Springs Dam lay just three miles west of downtown San Mateo. Earthquakes in 1906 and 1989 did not budge the 154-foot-high structure. The old waterworks, however, needed an extensive overhaul in a time of declining budgets; none had been forthcoming.

    The earthquake opened existing cracks in the old dam and the outlet towers and dislodged the rickety bridge that spanned the dam. It fell on top of the structure, blocking the spillway. With the rapid inundation of the floodwaters from San Andreas Dam, the tottering structure collapsed.

    The massive tragedy that unfolded below the dam fulfilled a water official's prophecy that, should such a disaster occur, "We would be retrieving San Mateo, Hillsborough, and Foster City from San Francisco Bay."

    The initial discharge approaching one million cubic feet per second generated enough erosive force to reduce all human and natural artifacts to bare earth. A wall of water cresting at a height of 112 feet set up an additional vibration in the earth as it raced down the narrow canyon carrying house-sized chunks of concrete and whatever flotsam it could claim along the way. The cascading wave lessened in speed and size as it flared out onto the crowded San Mateo County shoreline.

    While crushing structures and overwhelming people in its froth, the surging water also extinguished the many fires ignited by the earthquake.

    The seismic shaking had broken natural-gas mains and severed connections to individual homes. Petroleum products leaked from tank farms and either ignited or flowed into the bay, where they were joined by other toxic materials and raw sewage that poisoned wildlife. From the Inverness Ridge to the north, Mount Diablo in the east, and the Santa Cruz Mountains to the south, wildfires fanned by strong afternoon winds and feeding on the dry vegetation escalated rapidly, igniting rural propane tanks along the way.

    The sun was a sickly red disk behind the roiling clouds of dust, smoke, and sulfurous fumes. The sky darkened early that afternoon. There was no electricity in the entire Bay Area to ease the blackness--just the flames that danced like guttering candles in the rolling terrain. The flickering landscape popped and crackled.

    Within the city the largest fire spread rapidly eastward from the outer Sunset District near the ocean. No firewalls separated the abutting wood-frame homes that stood in units of twenty-four with a combined floor space of over thirty thousand square feet. A former San Francisco fire chief, estimating damage in a future quake, had said: "Under major fire conditions this fire load [meaning one unit] would tax the best efforts of an entire metropolitan fire department. There are, unfortunately, thousands of such houses across the city."

    They fell like flaming dominoes. There were no operable phones to report the conflagration that soon coalesced into a raging firestorm, feeding upon itself and consuming everything in its downwind path toward the stilled commercial heart of the city. The red fire-alarm boxes on street comers were useless because of damage to underground conduits.

    Had engine companies been sent--assuming there was an operable dispatch center--they could not have gotten far. Streets were littered with debris and glass that hindered passage and cut tires. There would have been little or no water once they arrived. Not only had the reservoirs been emptied, but also distribution lines within the city were severed, as was the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct, which carried water from the Sierra Nevada to many Bay Area communities.

    Fires, beyond any human's ability to control, raged throughout the city and the hinterlands. All that could be done was to let them burn and pray for diminishing winds and the return of the fog.

    Other than on foot, it was impossible to flee or enter the city. Freeways and side streets were buckled, overpasses were down, landslides covered roadways, and either the spans of all five bay bridges or their approaches had snapped or sunk into the jellied soil. Motorists panicked. There were numerous accidents at intersections where no traffic lights functioned.

    Bay Area airports, located on susceptible foundations, were a shambles. The answer for the frantic media, it appeared, was to land in Sacramento or Los Angeles, strap mountain bikes onto rented sports utility vehicles, and then descend into this blazing, waterless hell that had once been a functioning city beloved by all.

    The consultant and planner, the German tourists, and the suburbanites perished along with 28,000 others in northern California. It was the greatest domestic tragedy in this country's history, excluding the Civil War. The magnitude 8 earthquake was approximately the same size as the 1906 event. The difference was that at the start of the century there were 660,000 people living in the Bay Area, and now there were more than 6,000,000. Some of the structures had been made more earthquake-resistant; others hadn't.

    As darkness fell that first night, there was an eerie human silence and the sound of crackling flames. A French newspaper declared that San Francisco had ceased to exist, but that was not the case. Once again, with much fanfare and denial, it would be rebuilt.

Is this fiction or fact?

    All incidents and suppositions are either extrapolations from smaller earthquakes or scenarios concocted by federal and state authorities for a 1906-type event. The quotes come from documents and people. I have simply blended them into a reasonable, if somewhat horrific, narrative account.

    Quantification of such a disaster is a crapshoot. The variable's are immense and many are unknown. Twenty-eight thousand deaths is a conservative figure. A 1981 study estimated 22,000 to 33,000 deaths from the single dam I use in my example. Population has increased since then, and additional clams could fail. The estimates of deaths, not counting those from dam failures, have ranged upward to 12,000. Conceivably, the death toll on paper could be 45,000.

    The approximate ratio of deaths to injuries is three hospitalized and thirty nonhospital injuries per death. Given my estimate, this would mean 90,000 serious injuries. Factor in off-duty personnel who could not get to hospitals and medical facilities that would be destroyed or badly damaged, and it seems likely that many would suffer. The slightly injured and homeless might run to over a half million people.

    The most recent damage estimate for such a quake, again not taking a dam failure into account, ranges from $170 billion to $225 billion. The present record for earthquake damages in this country is $20 billion to $40 billion from the more moderate 1994 Los Angeles quake, which purportedly emptied insurance company coffers. Obviously there would be considerable national and international impact, considering damage to Silicon Valley and trade with Pacific Rim countries alone.

    I realize this account is difficult to accept, but history demonstrates that it will occur in a similar form and place in the near future. No one can know with any degree of certainty when or where such a catastrophe will strike.

Chapter Two



    Description, definition, and mythological concepts begin this probe into the danger of place.

    Among the rift zones of the world, the San Andreas Fault is quite unusual. Its distinctiveness is derived from its physical continuity. For hundreds of miles that giant rut--seemingly made by a single carriage wheel that varied only slightly from its course, becoming fainter or clearer depending upon the composition of the soil and rock--is recognizable as a feature of the landscape. Not a single place, but rather the accumulation of many related features bespeaks its awesome power.

    The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the federal agency within the Department of the Interior that deals with seismic matters, refers to the fault system as the best-known and most studied plate-tectonic boundary in the world. The San Andreas is the longest and most active of the numerous faults in California that collectively form the border between the Pacific and North American plates.

    There are three components to that band. From widest to narrowest, there are the fault system, fault zone, and fault. All the immediate offshore and onshore faults along the tectonic boundary comprise the San Andreas Fault system, which is fifty miles wide at the latitude of San Francisco. The fault or rift zone varies from one-third to a half mile, that being the area of highly sheared rock. The fault, fault line, fault trace, or fault branch is the most recent discernible break in the crust of the earth. A visible fault can be a single or a double furrow or a series of parallel fissures resembling half a chevron. Many faults, termed blind, do not break the surface.

    Mileage helps define the compelling presence of the San Andreas. While the fault system runs from Cape Mendocino in the north to the Colorado River delta in Mexico, where it drops into the Gulf of California, the single strand of the fault begins just north of Point Delgada and stops short of the border at the Salton Sea. The fault system is slightly longer than 800 miles, while the fault is 660 miles in length.

    Celebrated in films, novels, and journalism, the fault has achieved a notoriety of legendary proportions. It is also a symbolic presence. Like palm trees, it defines California, particularly for outsiders.

    When a poll conducted by Fodor's, the guidebook publisher, designated New York City as the runner-up in the category of places travelers least liked to visit and California as the second most desirable place, The New York Times, a booster of the former and denigrator of the latter, editorialized: "The lofty towers and the shopping and the Statue of Liberty are still thrilling. Of even deeper significance, New York City does not lie along the San Andreas fault, unlike the second favorite destination."

    Beyond metaphor, the fault possesses a tangible grandeur that is a product of its conspicuous visibility over a great distance. From the latitude of a rain forest environment to the low desert, the fault bisects surprisingly few urban areas. Rising from the ocean in Humboldt County, piercing the mile-high pine forests in northern Los Angeles County, and then dropping to below sea level in the sands of Imperial County, the fault resembles a long scar incised along the soft underbelly of California.

    What is particularly noticeable about the fault is the linearity of topographic features. Valleys, bays, lakes and ponds, notches in ridgelines, and the abrupt ends of ridges and mountains are arranged in a straight line or a gently curving arc to form an echo of the coastline. No other single landscape feature, except the shoreline, is as continuous in California.

    There are benefits from tectonic movement, among them being the variety of landscape forms that distinguishes California from other terrains. Without the San Andreas and its many associated faults, California's landscape would be as dull as Iowa's. There is another advantage. Earthquakes tend to discourage outsiders from migrating to California and they encourage the fainthearted to flee, thus contributing to the depopulation of the state. The rift-zone valleys provide a flat place to build houses, schools, universities, hospitals, churches, roads, freeways, aqueducts, and dams. What the fault gives, however, it can also take away.

    Besides their physical features, earthquake faults have been the focus of much conjecture over the centuries. Various theories have been advanced to explain why the surface of the earth moves. One replaced another with regularity. Plate tectonics, a theory that emphasizes the dynamic aspects of the continents and oceans coming together and parting, is the current orthodoxy.

    This theory holds that there are seven large plates and a number of smaller ones that pave the surface of the earth. These slabs are constantly moving relative to one other. Thus, most earthquake and volcanic activity occurs at plate boundaries, such as along the San Andreas Fault and to the north in the volcanic Cascade Range.

    There are three types of movement: the plates pull apart, they move horizontally past each other, or one dives under another--a process called subduction. Only the first of these types of movements does not occur in California. The activity is mostly horizontal along the San Andreas Fault system. From Cape Mendocino north, the Pacific Plate is diving under the North American Plate in a region known as the Mendocino Triple Junction.

    What does it feel like to live near, adjacent to, or on top of such a powerful force? Most people are unaware of its existence, since there is an almost total absence of signage, and damaging events are infrequent. Others give very little thought to its presence. These were the prevalent attitudes that I encountered along the fault line, where the transient nature of the populace does not lend itself to long-term memories.

    There were some exceptions. Psychological aftershocks were expressed in different ways: guilt (a mother thought of herself before her baby in a quake); fear (a man frequently awakens trembling in the night); prudence (a professional couple moved off the fault when they had a child); fantasy (a young girl who heard her grandfather's school was destroyed in the 1906 quake wished the same would happen to her school); helplessness (a woman cried for a week because her insurance company limited the earthquake coverage on her home, thus endangering her nest egg); and excitement (two persons I encountered said they were turned on by earthquakes).


    Earthquakes are prima facie a natural disaster. Yet the term, "natural" in this context is a misnomer. Earthquakes, volcanoes, wildfires, tsunamis, landslides, avalanches, floods, droughts, blizzards, hurricanes, tornadoes, cyclones, and lightning are disasters or catastrophes only when humans and their works get in the way. In reality, they are natural processes.

    Earthquakes are the most all-inclusive of such events. Frequently, earthquakes accompany active volcanoes. Flames erupt and fires spread when utility lines are ruptured. Tsunamis are spawned by the violent movement of the earth and cause flooding, as do dams that are breached by quakes. The dust rises, the land subsides, and the snow descends when the earth shakes.

    Thus, a study of earthquakes is very close to being an investigation into all forms of natural catastrophes. In fact, this archetype of sudden-impact hazards is frequently used as a model in the newly emerging field of disaster studies.

    Like an iceberg, the vast bulk of this phenomenon is hidden from sight. Earthquakes are the result of tremendous forces deep within the earth that are invisible to the naked eye and only dimly understood by the human intellect. What moves has become clearer in the twentieth century; why and when remain a mystery.

    The fear of the unknown is the greatest fear. Temblors strike without warning or at most, without a reliable warning that we can discern. Our senses and their technological extensions are no defense. Comfortable in our familiar surroundings, we are blind to their shazamlike appearances. These periodic upheavals maim, kill, and destroy within moments; yet they haven't significantly altered the course of modern history. Ancient times, when civilizations were more tightly clustered, were a different matter.

    Some scientists and scholars believe that earthquakes or their accompanying tsunamis caused the Red Sea to part for Moses and the fleeing Jews, breached the walls of Jericho and Troy, and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Armageddon and the Apocalypse were associated with earthquakes. An earthquake struck when Christ died on the cross. The ancient fortress city of Megiddo, located at a strategic position on a branch of the Dead Sea Fault, was destroyed and rebuilt numerous times after such violent disruptions as seismic events.

    The Minoan civilization on the Aegean island of Thira--possibly Plato's Atlantis--was torn apart by earthquakes and then vaporized by volcanic eruptions. The resulting tsunami and ashfall also wiped out the Minoans on nearby Crete. Their civilization was absorbed by the Greeks. The scientist-writer team of Charles Officer and Jake Page wrote in Tales of the Earth: "No earthquake that we know of has changed the course of civilization, as the volcanic eruption at Thira evidently did, but it is safe to say that no geologic phenomenon has taken a greater toll of human lives than earthquakes."

    Earthquake casualties predominate in third world countries, while property damage is highest in developed nations.

    Although perhaps 60,000 died in the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, Europe suffered more from wars, epidemics, and famines during the middle years of the current millennium. The seismic toll has been greater elsewhere. For the four centuries following A.D. 1400, there were 110,000 earthquake deaths in Europe compared to 1,200,000 in China.

     No country has suffered greater seismic losses than China: 13,000,000 deaths over the three thousand years that records have been kept; 830,000 killed in one temblor in 1556; and upwards of 250,000 casualties in another in 1976. In the two hundred years of recorded California history, there have been fewer than 6,000 deaths.

    When Americans shake their heads in disbelief at California's fragility without considering the earthquake history of the remainder of the world, they are being geocentric. The chance of perishing in an earthquake in California is 1 in 600,000, while the odds of dying in an automobile accident are 1 in 20,000. Still, California is considered as the riskiest place to live in this country because of an extensive array of natural and human hazards, the first being the state's "infamous seismic zones."

    The large number of catastrophes in California should be no surprise, both to those living within the state and outsiders.

    California contains every type of landscape province and its accompanying dangers: blinding sandstorms and flash floods in the desert, blizzards and avalanches in the High Sierra, volcanic mountains in the Cascade Range, the Coast Range riven by fault lines, and large rivers and smaller creeks capable of flooding in flat valleys.

    With a wet season and a dry season making up a given year, excesses of precipitation and drought bring floods and fires. Across the huge expanse of open water stretching all the way to Asia come El Nino, hurricanes, and other unstable masses of air bearing such minor disturbances as lightning storms, hail, and tornadoes.

    Combine all these natural forces with the largest population in the nation and the result can be nothing else but periodic chaos, a fact that is not widely advertised.


    Earthquakes were first associated with animals. The world was depicted as resting on some creature's back. The animal moved; the earth shook. Depending on the mythology of the particular culture, this creature could be a tortoise, buffalo, hog, frog, fish, crab, mole, or serpent.

    The results, of course, were catastrophic; they could also be beneficial. By shifting position the god or hero-animal got a better purchase on the earth, thereby assuring it continued stability.

    In the earthquake-prone Mediterranean region, the fourth-century B.C. world of the Greek philosopher Aristotle consisted of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. His theory of earthquakes was constrained by this short list. Wind, fanned by subterranean fires or the heat of the sun, was either exhaled from or forced into cracks in the earth, thus causing the earth to shake. Aristotle's hypothesis, contained in his Meteorologica, dominated thinking on the subject up to the middle of the last century.

    An offshoot of Aristotle's theory maintained that the collapse of underground caverns caused quakes when the supports that held up the earth were consumed by fire. Yawning chasms that could swallow large objects appeared momentarily, then snapped shut. The fear of such abysses persists to the present, despite lack of hard proof of their existence.

    In the New World, the Indians of California experienced the most earthquakes. For such an active seismic zone there are few surviving Native American accounts, which might be a comment on anthropologists not asking the right questions.

    Thunder and Earthquake were two characters in the myths of two widely separated tribes, the Yokuts of the southern San Joaquin Valley and the Yuroks of the Northwest Coast. The land shook when Earthquake ran while at the same time Thunder accompanied him with various pyrotechnics in the sky.

    As the tale was recorded by University of California anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber, the Yuroks saw the interaction between Earthquake and Thunder as a playful competition with serious overtones:

    Then Earthquake thought: "How will it be about the earth?"

    Thunder came and said, "It will be best if I help you when you shake."

    Earthquake thought: "Perhaps it will not amount to anything if he helps me."

    Thunder said, "It will be well, for I shall be running all over the world, and it will be good like that."

    Earthquake said, "Well, I shall tear up the earth."

    Thunder said, "That's why I say we will be companions, because I shall go over the whole world and scare them. Wherever I know people live, I shall go, upstream or across the ocean, for I brought something to be seen at night; at Pulekuk I brought it."

    Earthquake said, "If I see the earth tilt, I can level it again. That is what I shall want to do."

    Thunder said, "I will begin to run. Listen." So he began to run, and he listened. It seemed as if the sky began to fall, so hard did Thunder run, and leaped on trees and broke them down.

    Earthquake stayed still to listen to his running. Then he said to him, "Now you listen: I shall begin to run." He started. He shook the ground. He tore it and broke it to pieces, because he did not wish us to be about.

    The Yuroks, who lived within the zone of subduction, had their own way of understanding how and for what purpose the landscape was altered. The prairie near the ocean subsided when Earthquake stepped on it, and the result was more productive terrain, that being the lagoons along the North Coast. This could have been a case of the land subsiding during a huge earthquake, a tsunami inundating the coast, or both occurring at the same time. Scientists now think that a giant temblor or a series of smaller quakes shook the Northwest between 1700 and 1730, causing parts of the coast to subside.

    California Indian tribes interpreted the 1906 earthquake differently than the dominant white culture. To the Yurok the temblor was punishment for stealing many of the tribe's artifacts and putting them on display in museums in Berkeley and San Francisco. The Washo in the Sierra Nevada saw it as payback for theft of natural resources. To the Wintun of the Sacramento Valley, the quake was either the stretching of the earth to accommodate the rapidly multiplying whites, or the beginning of the obliteration of all races.

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