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Berkeley quake preparedness still lacking

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Wednesday August 08, 2001

While Berkeley has won awards for its efforts to prepare for seismic upgrading and disaster preparation, city officials caution that there’s still a long way to go before it is ready for a major quake on the Hayward Fault. 

Arrietta Chakos, chief of staff to the city manager, said Berkeley leads the state in home retrofitting and has supported a variety of bonds to make schools and public buildings safer.  

“We’ve taken a lot of initiative without assistance from state and federal programs,” Chakos said. “We’ve made our schools safer and have contributed to safety in the private sector.” 

Chakos said a multi-departmental task force is currently being formed to continue disaster preparation programs. 

The Bay Area’s seismic consciousness was abruptly raised nearly 12 years ago on Oct. 17, 1989 when the 7.1 Loma Prieta Earthquake, centered near Santa Cruz on the San Andreas Fault, shook the earth for 15 seconds. 

The quake killed 62 people and injured another 3,000. Damage included the collapse of the Cypress Freeway, the closure of 10 bridges and the destruction or damage of nearly 20,000 homes.  

“Loma Prieta was centered 90 miles away,” said Community Emergency Response Training coordinator, Dory Ehrlich. “In Berkeley a few chimneys toppled. If a major earthquake hits the Hayward Fault, which runs right under the UC Berkeley campus, we can expect a lot more damage than that.” 

In fact, a report prepared by the city’s Disaster Council in May estimated that if a 7.0 earthquake struck the Hayward Fault, 25 percent of Berkeley homes could be rendered uninhabitable leaving as many as 20,000 people homeless.” 

The report concluded that Berkeley was not anywhere near ready for the aftermath of a major earthquake.  

However, while there’s work to be done, Berkeley was recognized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as being a model for community preparedness in 1999. In 2000 Berkeley was named Seismic Community of the Year by the State Seismic Safety Commission. The city also was recently awarded a $300,000 grant from Project Impact, a federal program that promotes disaster preparation. 

Chakos said one reason for the awards is that 40 percent of single family homes in Berkeley have been seismically retrofitted, a higher percentage than any other city in the state. The high rate is attributed to the city’s transfer tax rebate policy. 

The way it works is a portion of the transfer tax from a home sale is put into an escrow account at the time of sale. That money can then be used by the homeowner for retrofitting projects on the property.  

“Because of the high cost of real estate in Berkeley, people really want to protect their homes,” Mayor Shirley Dean said. “The media has given them the message about the value of retrofitting and we have given them the means with the transfer tax.” 

In addition to upgrading homes, Chakos said Berkeley voters have approved every seismic or fire bond measure that has been on the ballot since 1992. Some of the bond measures include Measure A and Measure AA, which raised a total of $272 million to retrofit school buildings in the Berkeley Unified School District and Measure S, which raised $49 million to retrofit the Civic Center and Main Library. 

“I think it was that kind of public spirit that caught the attention of the FEMA,” Chakos said.  

City Disaster Commissioner Russell Kilday-Hicks said Berkeley has come a long way in preparing for a quake but there’s still much to be done. He said that despite the millions put into the school buildings there are still preparedness issues lingering.  

“The major thing is the schools,” Hicks said. “The commission didn’t feel comfortable with Berkeley parents sending their kids off to school and thinking they were safe.” 

The City Council approved a recommendation by the Disaster Commission in early May to install 20-foot long metal containers on each school campus. The containers will be filled with emergency supplies such as food, water and first-aid kits. According to Kilday-Hicks the containers have not yet been installed. 

Chakos said the city is in the process of organizing the Disaster Resistant Berkeley program, which will combine several city departments to form a comprehensive approach to disaster readiness. The DRB team, which is budgeted at $660,000 for the next two fiscal years, will include representatives from the fire, housing and planning departments among others.  

“The group will make a presentation to council hopefully by October during Earthquake and Fire Safety Month,” Chakos said. 

Other steps the city has taken to prepare for a natural disaster is the formation of the Community Emergency Response Training program, which offers free readiness classes to anyone who lives or works in Berkeley.  

The classes cover seven areas of earthquake preparedness such as first aid, fire suppression and light search and rescue. Ehrlich said there will be a new series of subjects starting in September. 

“What we want to do is get as many people as possible to get themselves prepared to take care of themselves,” Ehrlich said. “And the citizens of Berkeley feel very strongly about taking care of themselves and their neighbors.” 


Summer 2001 Class Schedule for Emergency Response Training 

Earthquake Retrofitting: Sept. 8, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.  

Basic Personal Preparedness: Sept. 15, 9 – 11 a.m. 

Disaster Mental Health: Sept. 22, 9 a.m. - noon 

Disaster First Aid: Sept. 29, 9 a.m. – noon  

For more information, call 981-5605