All shook up
A big earthquake will likely strike the Bay Area in coming years — so why isn't everyone ready?
Six months ago, Steve Walter bought a new bookcase for his home. Walter, a seismologist with the Menlo Park office of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), knows heavy furniture ought to be anchored to walls so it doesn't topple in a major earthquake.
But he hasn't gotten around to it yet because other things just keep coming up, he said.
"I can understand procrastination. ... Weekends come, and the last thing on my mind is to make more work," he said.
Walter is otherwise well-prepared, with other furniture well-bolted and a stash of supplies in his garage — food, water, a radio, a flashlight and a first-aid kit, he said.
But his one bookcase illustrates a common phenomenon in earthquake country: People know about the dangers of a temblor but aren't prepared for the actual event.
Fewer than 10 percent of households have a disaster plan, according to a booklet prepared by the USGS, Red Cross and other nonprofits called "Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Country."
Fewer than half have kits with water, food or medical supplies, the booklet states.
Yet a major earthquake measuring 6.7 or higher is likely for the Bay Area, with a 67 percent probability before 2032, according to the latest USGS report.
It's a virtual certainty — 99 percent likely — that a major quake will hit somewhere in California before 2037, the USGS reported earlier this month.
And last October a 5.6 earthquake radiating out from the Calaveras fault in San Jose — the area's strongest since the 1989 Loma Prieta shaker — rattled households throughout Palo Alto.
The reasons why many people remain unprepared are manifold, disaster-preparedness experts said.
To prepare, one must overcome basic human psychology, such as the practice of making forward-looking decisions based on past experience, or a natural inclination to focus on the positive, they said.
Getting ready for quakes can mean fighting these instincts — as well as battling anxiety, denial and a busy schedule, they said.
Yet all agreed taking simple, inexpensive precautions — such as getting to know neighbors or storing extra water in the garage — can drastically improve a person's chances of surviving the Big One.
Blame the boy who cried wolf, Walter said when asked why some people don't take quakes seriously.
After years of hearing that an earthquake is coming without ever seeing the walls shake, rattle and roll, people begin to doubt the truth of such forecasts, he said.
"They just hear the big number, and then they wonder why it hasn't happened for a couple years," he said.
Part of the confusion stems from the way USGS probabilities are forecast — in 30-year time frames, which means the likelihood of a quake in any given year is a few percentage points, Walter said.
Ironically, the chance of an earthquake increases as time wears on and the earthquake fails to materialize. Today's 63 percent probability for the Bay Area was 62 percent in 2006, he said.
Futurist Paul Saffo, a Bay Area writer and Stanford University instructor who recently wrote about the potential economic fallout from a quake, agreed many don't believe an earthquake is likely just because one hasn't happened recently.
It's a fundamentally flawed approach, he said.
"Most people march backwards into the future and base what they think will be ahead on what has happened in the recent past. Low-frequency, high-impact events [such as major earthquakes] repeatedly catch people by surprise," he said.
It's unfortunate the last 100 years have been seismically calm, lulling people into a false sense of security, he said.
And it's especially easy to feel secure in pretty, peaceful Palo Alto, according to Annette Ashton, a co-founder of Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN), a network of neighborhood associations leading a civic push towards emergency preparedness.
"We live in this absolutely beautiful world. It's peaceful; there's not much crime; and most of us are just so busy living our lives. It's very, very easy to feel like we're safe," she said.
It was precisely that sense of calm the Red Cross was hoping to shatter last spring and summer by plastering San Francisco with pictures of destruction, according to Melanie Sanders, the communications manager for the Bay Area chapter.
The agency designed huge pictures of streets covered in rubble to hang, trompe l'oeil-style, on the sides of trucks at street intersections. They also created a huge "crack" in the earth that stretched across the sidewalks of Union Square.
"What do we have to do to get your attention?" was the motto of the campaign, she said.
The agency hoped the shocking scenes would cut through the usual bombardment of ads and jolt viewers into action, she said.
Yet raising awareness can backfire when people become intimidated by the threat of a looming catastrophe, according to former Palo Alto Mayor Judy Kleinberg.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Kleinberg has pushed being crisis-ready as a city priority for Palo Alto. She founded the Red Ribbon Task Force, a coalition of city groups working towards preparedness.
But the real stumbling block to disaster preparedness is not enlisting those already eager to help — it's encouraging the rest of the population, she said.
A natural inclination to focus on the positive, as well as "disaster fatigue," or getting tired of talking about doom, leads most people away from thoughts of preparation, she said.
"They don't want to dwell on 'The sky is falling,' being Chicken Little," she said.
Toning down the doomsday feel of disaster discussions is key to helping people feel capable of getting prepared, she said.
Like hands-free driving or no-smoking zones, being crisis-ready should be a standard social custom, she said.
People could mark their calendars to update emergency supplies once a year, timing it to daylight savings time, for example, she said.
That way, preparations would simply become ritual, and their intimidating aura would melt away, she said.
An annual habit might have helped Palo Alto resident Mike Hammond, who said the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake encouraged him to take action. He talked to neighbors and bought supplies, he said. But then the years slipped past and he became busy with more immediate concerns, he said.
Being busy is another reason why people let earthquake predictions pile up without taking action, Walter, Ashton and others said. Even those who believe in the importance of preparedness and lack the anxiety Kleinberg described must find time to buy supplies, they said.
It's human nature to tackle short-term concerns first — and run out of time for seemingly long-term problems, they said.
Yet Hammond is once more beginning to think ahead, he said. He recently saw an ad for a neighborhood-based program led by Ashton's PAN and realized it was time to get prepared again, he said.
PAN's program aims to prepare the city for a disaster by starting small — the size of a city block, to be precise.
The block-preparedness coordinator program, started in January, seeks a point person on each of the city's 2,500 blocks, according to Ashton, chair of PAN's Emergency Preparedness Committee.
The block coordinator's main role is to get to know neighbors, thereby becoming a conduit of local information and a go-to person during a crisis, she said.
In a disaster, neighbors would report injuries or other problems to the block coordinator, who would report to a neighborhood coordinator, who would finally relay the most pressing news to city command centers, she said.
Homegrown, close-knit communities respond better to crises, she said, adding the traditional community structure in Southeast Asian countries aids tsunami and flood recovery.
Hammond signed on to be a block coordinator, and Kendric Smith, a Stanford University professor emeritus who lives on university-owned land, is another info hub for his neighborhood program.
The Stanford Campus Residential Leaseholders has an emergency plan is much like PAN's.
Each street has an organizer in charge of keeping track of residents' names and phone numbers and helping all meet at an appointed spot in an emergency, Smith said.
He volunteered to be a "street captain" and keeps a list of local info in his study, tucked near books and birding posters.
It was the Loma Prieta earthquake that encouraged the leaseholders' group to start its program — and him to stock his house, Smith said.
He was without electricity for three days, he said on a recent afternoon, stooping in a supply closet in his backyard to pull an electric generator and extension cords out from under a shelf.
He also keeps extra supplies of food, water, flashlights and radios in his garage.
He believes emergency personnel will be busy dealing with major crises if a quake were to rip through the Peninsula — leaving residents with only each other.
Enoch Choi, a Palo Alto doctor, said he came to similar conclusions after traveling to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and witnessing agencies such as the Red Cross run out of supplies.
He's betting it'll be safest to stay inside during a major event such as an earthquake or pandemic flu, he said. He keeps his house stocked to support his family, including his wife and two children, for up to two weeks, he said.
A huge white bucket of powdered food — which cost $100 at Costco, he said — sits in a storage closet near discarded baby toys.
Even the Segway scooter he sometimes rides to work will play into his plan, as a way to pick his kids up from school if roads are blocked, he said.
Choi is also a member of a city program to train residents as emergency workers, Palo Alto Neighborhood Disaster Activities or PANDA. He carries a small package with bandages, a syringe, needle and thread with him everywhere, he said.
While a palpable sense of the reality behind disaster forecasts can be a real motivator, Ashton said she's also encouraged because she has come to find preparation fun. She keeps a Red Cross emergency-backpack in her car, a hand-crank radio in the kitchen, cash stashed in secret places in the house — and more. Disaster preparedness is now a hobby, she said.
"I am really addicted to this stuff. My husband thinks I'm nuts," she said.
Yet it doesn't take an affinity for gadgets or a stockpile of supplies to get ready for earthquakes, experts said.
An exhaustive list of earthquake-safe measures could fill an entire newspaper — but a few simple actions can increase a person's preparedness by orders of magnitude, they said.
The most basic advice can be broken into three simple steps.
The first is getting to know one's neighbors — those best positioned to help and perhaps the only ones who could in a disaster.
Police and fire forces will likely be busy responding to dire emergencies for at least three days after a major earthquake, according to Sheryl Contois, director of technical services for the police department. Households will probably have to fend for themselves, she said, confirming Smith's and Choi's predictions.
The second step to preparedness is having three days' worth of food and water, along with basic supplies, at home. Such rations and tools should also be kept in the car, too, because there's no guarantee the earth will start shaking while residents are at home.
Both the Red Cross and the disaster-preparedness company Quakehold! sell earthquake kits to cover basic needs. They range in price and amount of supplies, but all have three days of water, food, a flashlight (or light-stick) and a first-aid kit.
Quakehold's bare-bones, one-person, three-day kit is about $15 at Palo Alto Hardware. The store also sells family-sized models. The Red Cross Store's Web site sells various kits, including a chic, black duffel for "trendsetters" for about $60.
People can also research supplies on Web sites such as the Red Cross' and buy them on their own.
The third step is to make a plan with family or other members of the household, according to Kleinberg, the Red Cross and others. The group should pick an out-of-state person to contact in case local phone lines go down, as well as a meeting spot. Parents should plan how to pick up children from school.
Beyond these steps, residents can quake-proof their houses and possessions using guidelines from the "Putting Down Roots" booklet, available online at earthquake.usgs.gov then clicking on "Northern California" and "Preparedness."
The bottom line for Kleinberg is mindset: Getting ready for an earthquake should be done in a way that's convenient, comfortable and inexpensive — not an onerous pain-in-the-tectonic-plate, she said.
Staff Writer Arden Pennell can be e-mailed at email@example.com.