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140th Commemoration Warns Hayward Fault Earthquake Is Ready To Rupture

29 October 2008 No Comment

By Karen Weise

The ceremony commemorating the 140th anniversary of the Hayward Fault earthquake emphasized the urgency of learning from the magnitude 6.8 trembler in order to minimize devastation from future quakes. Calling for greater disaster preparedness, the ceremony blended history and science about the quake to jolt the public and officials into action.

The U.S. Geological Society calls the Hayward Fault a “tectonic time bomb” that is overdue for a major earthquake. Geologists estimate a 31 percent likelihood that the fault –which stretches from San Pablo Bay to south of Fremont near Milpitas–will produce a magnitude 6.7 or greater quake in the next 30 years. The 140th anniversary is particularly ominous, commemoration speakers said, because the fault’s earthquakes happen on average every 140 years.

Descendants of survivors of the 1868 Hayward Fault earthquake listen to Dolors Ferenz, Mission San Jose administrator, describe how the church crumbled in the quake.

Descendants of survivors of the 1868 Hayward Fault earthquake listen to Dolors Ferenz, Mission San Jose administrator, describe how the church crumbled in the quake.

At 7:55 AM on Tuesday, Mission San Jose’s ringing bells marked the moment in 1868 when the earth shook for forty seconds, leaving more than thirty people dead and significant property damage. Nearly every building in Hayward was wrecked or destroyed, according to the USGS.

“We commemorate a tremendous earth shaking moment,” said Andrew Galvan, curator at San Francisco’s Mission Dolores and a descendant of Native American survivors of the earthquake. “So we look forward: how do we prepare to avoid the type of disaster that occurred in 1868, basically the type of disaster that effects the lives of all peoples?”

Dolores Ferenz, Mission San Jose administrator, said records show the church’s roof caved in and adobe walls crumbled. Only a baptismal font and two statues survived the earthquake.

Suzette Kimball, associate director of the USGS, said the Hayward Fault is particularly prone to producing a damaging quake because of its historic seismic patterns and location in the heart of the Bay Area.

The region’s population density means the potential damage of a large earthquake is larger than the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report from last December. As the most urbanized fault in the U.S., more than 2.4 million people live and 1.5 million people work within striking distance of the fault.

“I don’t think people understand the Hayward fault because all the publicity goes to Loma Prieta and San Andreas,” said John Brennan, whose great-granduncle survived the 1868 quake. “They’re still building buildings on the fault line. What’s the deal with that? Why do they allow developers to build on a fault line?”

Geologist Betsy Mathieson, a commissioner on the State’s Seismic Safety Commission, stressed that building codes do not make structures “earthquake proof.” She said the code is intended to prevent buildings from collapsing and killing people, but that the building may still be rendered unusable after a quake.

Only structures like dams and nuclear power plants are designed to be truly “earthquake proof,” Mathieson said.

Representing State Senator Ellen Corbett, Jason Overman said the Senator recently introduced a bill that requires more stringent seismic standards for homes. He said the Senator will soon hold hearings to investigate why $200 million of Proposition 1D funding, earmarked to upgrade the seismic safety of schools, has not yet been spent.

While the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake is often called “The Big One,” Mathieson said the public has “no idea how strong the ground will shake” when an earthquake similar to the 1868 or 1906 quakes strikes. In particular, Mathieson said, the length of shaking will shock many. The 1906 San Francisco quake lasted for over a minute, while the 1989 Loma Prieta quake was just 15 second long, she said.

Fremont mayor Bob Wasserman, who was police chief during the 1989 quake, said the potential scope of damage means residents must be self-sufficient in disaster.

“You are not going to get a lot of help in those first couple of days,” said Wasserman.

He pointed to the fire department’s Community Emergency Response Team program, which trains community members to respond to disasters when services such as 911 are inundated with the most pressing needs.

Harold Brooks, chief executive officer of the American Red Cross’s Bay Area Chapter, said even a basic level of preparedness can help. He recommended that families make an disaster plan, prepare a kit of supplies, and stay informed.

The ceremony at Mission San Jose kicked off a series of events, organized by the USGS and the 1868 Hayward Earthquake Alliance. On Tuesday, 275,000 students and employees participated in an area-wide earthquake drill. Richard McCarthy, executive director the Seismic Safety Commission, said this drill, and a similar one involving 4 million people Southern California this Nov., will provide test cases for implementing a state-wide earthquake drill next year.

From Wednesday to Friday more than 200 scientists are convening at California State University East Bay to share recent earthquake research, with a free public forum on earthquake hazards and earthquake preparedness this Thursday at 7 PM in the New University Union building.

Towards the end of Tuesday’s ceremony, the Red Cross’ Brooks reflected on his recent response to Hurricane Ike, when advanced warning allowed him to travel to Louisiana and prepare before the hurricane touched ground.

“What a luxury to have the opportunity to get our ducks in a row,” he said. “Our time to get our ducks in a row is right now.

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