Monday, April 17, 2006

What's Really Important

Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the Great Quake -- the almost complete destruction of the city of San Francisco by a massive temblor and resulting fire.

As one might expect, the city has been gearing up for this for months, with exhibits, memorials, and other events outlining the damages, the suffering, and the immediate reaction and long-term consequences of the disaster. If you've been watching The History Channel or other such networks, you've seen or will be seeing numerous retrospectives.

Like it or not, San Francisco lives both in spite of and because of the 1906 quake. The utter devastation of much of the city laid open a path for a complete infrastructure redesign and restructuring, led by visionary mayors and city engineers, that laid the groundwork capable even today of supporting a city whose needs were scarcely even imagined when it was built. The ability of leaders today to engage in needless bickering and posturing is due in no small part to the fact that they don't have to worry about mundane day-to-day operations; all that was anticipated when the city was built.

However, that relative lack of worry has transformed into a singular lack of concern about seismic activity, despite the fact that the Bay Area represents one of the most densely-populated and built-upon fault areas on the planet. Not one, not two, but eight faults cross the region -- yet, even with the reminder of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, the contracts for seismic retrofit and reinforcement of the Bay Bridge and Transbay Tunnel have either just been or are about to be awarded.

Contracts, folks. Not construction or completion, despite the fact that the two public works in question move literally hundreds of thousands of vehicles and people on a daily basis and were compromised almost to the point of collapsing fifteen years ago.

You can go on and on -- the building codes that weren't revised until the late '70s, the drive to get rid of San Francisco's fireboats despite the fact that they represent the only way of reliably getting water to fires in the absence of mains -- you get the idea. But I think a far better way of showing it are the projections of what could happen if a similar quake struck today.

Pretty sobering.

What amuses (or appalls) me is this state's priorities. Spending billions of dollars on universal preschool is all well and good, but that will be little comfort to four-year-olds when they don't see their parents for weeks -- because they were unlucky enough to be on opposite sides of the Bay when the Tube and Bay Bridge collapsed. The irony, of course, is that universal preschool will then be unnecessary -- given that, without transit links, city services, and other things, their parents will now have plenty of time to spend on them, since their jobs and companies will have dried up and blown away. It will be interesting to see how San Francisco's cottage protest industry survives once city government is forced to actually spend money on work rather than on pandering, or how its constant avoidance of efficiency by raising tax rates manages when half of the property in the city is erased.

More than all that, it makes me mad. If a quake comes, right now, there are three possibilities; one, I'm at home and safe, two, I'm at work and stuck in Oakland, and three, I'm in transit and hoping a 40-year-old system that's already been strained by one earthquake survives a second one long enough to get me out of it.

Two out of the three have me separated from my partner, likely unable to communicate with him, and wondering whether he's alive or dead.

That tends to reorder what you think is important. Perhaps it's time Nunez, the Assembly, Schwarzenegger, and others remembered that.

No comments: