The ground's brief 4.4-magnitude jolt on Jan. 4 was a reminder that Bay Area residents are sitting on top of a potential disaster.
Coincidentally, and perhaps just in time, on Jan. 18 at 6:30 p.m., three experts will discuss the latest science and thinking on earthquakes, social media in a disaster and disaster response.
The event, "Calamities Happen: What You Need to Know," is part of the Palo Alto/Stanford Citizen Corps Council's annual recognition event at Palo Alto City Council Chambers, 250 Hamilton Ave., which will honor three individuals and a federal disaster-assistance team for their work on emergency preparedness, response or recovery. This year's recipients will be residents Susanne Jul, for creative crisis leadership; Ce Ci Kettendorf, block-preparedness coordinator; John Mori, a member of the Community Emergency Response Team; and the U.S. Health and Human Services Disaster Medical Assistance Team, CA-6.
Newly inducted Palo Alto Mayor Liz Kniss will kick off the event, followed by remarks from experts: Tom Brocher, a research geophysicist and former director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Earthquake Science Center; Jeff L. Norris; emergency services coordinator with the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office, Office of Emergency Services; and Brandon Bond, administrative director of the Office of Emergency Management at Stanford Health Care. Bond will discuss his role in disaster response and the many disasters to which he has been deployed, such as Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, the 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Haiti, Hurricane Katrina and Texas following Hurricane Harvey.
Brocher will discuss the current forecast for Bay Area earthquakes in the next 30 years, the recent and potential activity on the Hayward Fault and the coming rollout of the earthquake early-warning system, ShakeAlert, which is being developed by USGS and state and university agencies for the West Coast and Pacific Northwest regions.
There have been some changes to earthquake predictions, he said during a phone interview this week. "The prediction is a little higher than before," he said. Previous forecasts were for a 63 percent probability in the next 30 years, with about a 33 percent chance of a major quake originating on the Hayward Fault and 22 percent on the San Andreas Fault.
"The current forecast for the next 30 years is a 72 percent likelihood, or a 3-out-of-4 chance of a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake in the Bay Area. That would be comparable to the Loma Prieta earthquake."
But besides these two notorious fault lines, many other smaller faults thread the area that are capable of producing a 6.0-magnitude quake. "Locally they could be very damaging to the town nearby," he said.
Although the San Andreas is the fault of immediate concern to Palo Alto, a large quake on the Hayward Fault could also affect the city. A large Hayward Fault quake could damage buildings and infrastructure that cross the fault, such as water mains and electrical and gas lines, which service Palo Alto, he said.
On Oct. 21 1868, the Hayward Fault unleashed a 6.8-magnitude shaker that damaged buildings in San Francisco. The event was at that time called the Great San Francisco Earthquake, he said.
A study of major earthquakes looking at a span of 2,000 years found a 150- to 160-year variation in spacing on the Hayward Fault. The 150th anniversary of that quake is this year, so we are at that threshold now, he said.
Technology that didn't exist 150 years ago would now likely play an important role in earthquake prediction and in its aftermath. The USGS plans to roll out a prototype of early-warning system ShakeAlert this year, and the Bay Area would likely be included in that first test, he said.
Jeff Norris, San Mateo County Emergency Services coordinator, said social media will play an important role in a quake or major disaster, offering additional ways to disseminate information beyond law enforcement and mainstream media.
"Social media is a great way to rapidly speed information to a community," he said, noting that local police and the California Highway Patrol regularly use platforms such as Nixle and Twitter to inform the public about both critical and nonemergency situations such as road closures.
But the lightning-fast dispersal of information can also have a downside. Whether unintentional or malicious, rumors can create harm in a community, he said. Law enforcement, emergency personnel and the media now have a greater obligation to locate, validate or discredit rumors by monitoring social media, he said.
He gave some examples. A Twitter user might tweet that the BART train system is down after mistakenly seeing many people gathered on a platform. BART's automated alert system sometimes also creates confusion. If one train is delayed, BART sends out an automated message about that train being late, but then it will send out separate messages about every other train that is late because of that train, he said. Such messaging floods can also dilute the impact of the messages and turn off recipients.
"There are 15 different social media platforms, from Periscope to Twitter, it can be information overload. It becomes a question of where do you go to find (information)?" he said.
But there's also a shift in public thinking, he said. First responders, the media and others disseminating critical information must also consider the way social media has infiltrated public mindsets.
After a commuter train derailed in southern California, a fire captain tried to evacuate the able-bodied passengers so that paramedics could reach those who were seriously injured, the captain recounted at a lecture Norris attended.
"If you can get up, walk and come to me," the captain had said. When people did not exit, he stuck his head inside the train car to find out what was going on.
"People were sitting and tapping on their keypads and phones. He was befuddled," Norris said.
The captain then changed his message: "If you are on social media tweeting about the train wreck, come to me." And the passengers got up and left the train.
Norris explained that people weren't thinking about whether they were safe and how to get out. The most important mindset was they were OK and they needed to tell someone, he said.
Despite social media, Norris said the mainstream news -- particularly organizations with in-depth local coverage -- still play the most important communications role in a disaster by providing vetted, factual information.
"Drive-time radio still has the greatest reach to the public," he said.