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City, UC Disaster Meet Provokes Citizen Complaints

Tuesday December 09, 2003

A town/gown disaster preparedness summit at the Berkeley City Club Friday brought out approximately 100 city, public utility and university top brass—including Mayor Tom Bates and Chancellor Robert Berdahl—but some community members complained about a glaring omission from the list of invitees: John Q. Public. 

“If the City of Berkeley is going to co-sponsor this event and put money and staff time into it, then the general public should know about it,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington, adding that residents would have questioned university and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) officials about the wisdom of planning major new developments in the heart of an earthquake zone. 

“It’s a serious flaw when you get 100 top professionals together but you don’t address the single biggest issue about disaster preparedness,” he said. 

“That wasn’t factored into our thinking,” said Berkeley Assistant City Manager Arrietta Chakos, who worked with university officials to organize the summit. “There will be tons of time for more community discussion and review.” 

City and university officials convened the summit at a shared cost of about $5,000 to begin work towards a Community Mitigation Plan that could net both entities new streams of federal disaster funding. The city’s share was covered by a state grant, Chakos said. 

For a meeting on disasters, the tone was upbeat.  

In the years since the 1991 Berkeley Hills fire, the city has received roughly $30 million from the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA). 

Representatives from the city, school district and university boasted of their accomplishments during the past decade. Thanks to taxpayer largess and city incentive programs, all of the district’s K-12 schools, all local fire stations, and nearly 60 percent of single family homes have been retrofitted or seismically upgraded since 1991. 

The university has already retrofitted 31 of its 81 buildings as part of its roughly $800 million SAFER program, with 13 more buildings scheduled for completion within the next five years. 

Still, a magnitude 6.9 earthquake along the Hayward Fault which runs underneath Memorial Stadium—a 62 percent probability before 2032—could have devastating consequences, said Richard Eisner of the California Office of Emergency Services. 

Such a quake would kill an estimated 100 residents, ignite five major fires, damage 21,000 buildings, displace 3,000 - 12,000 residents and cause an estimated $1.5 billion in damages, he said. 

Homes most susceptible to collapse are the roughly 400 “soft story buildings” built around the campus during the ‘60s and early ‘70s that house about 5,000 residents. Similar buildings—which perch apartments above ground-level garages—suffered high rates of destruction in the 1993 Northridge earthquake, Housing Director Stephen Barton said.  

Friday’s meeting focused on coordinating disaster response efforts among the city, the university, public utilities and BART. 

Representatives from the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) and Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) claimed their disaster preparedness programs—funded with billions of taxpayer dollars—would likely restore water and electricity within two weeks of a major temblor. However, BART General Manager Thomas Margro said that without funding for its proposed $1.5 billion retrofit program—rejected by voters in 2002—a major earthquake could shut down the Transbay Tube for two years. 

Coordinating transportation in the aftermath of an earthquake emerged as a primary concern. “The ability to move people in and out of places and get access will be significant,” said UC Berkeley Director of Parking and Transportation Nad Permaul. “If East Bay MUD has to bring water by truck, we need to decide what street do we have to have.” 

Berkeley Fire Chief Reg Garcia said the city has prioritized city response and evacuation routes, but that a decision on which street to open first will be based on “the nature and location of the emergency.” He said that since top city emergency personnel all lived within walking distance of the city’s new Emergency Operations Center in the Public Safety Building, the city would not be shorthanded during an emergency.  

Some members of the public were invited to the meeting. Members of commissions on housing, transportation, disabilities and zoning were present, but members of the Community Environmental Advisory Commission (CEAC) and the Community Health Commission—two of the biggest advocates for disaster preparedness—were excluded. 

“This was an absolute outrage,” said Pam Sihvola of the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste. “Why were the most informed neighborhood and environmental groups excluded from the meeting?” 

Particularly galling, she said, was that attendees of an afternoon roundtable meeting on environmental health co-chaired by LBNL Radiation Safety Officer Gary Zeman never discussed ramifications of the Molecular Foundry, which is to be built within the Alquist-Priolo earthquake zone and a landslide zone. 

“We believe the best way to shield yourself from huge disasters is not to build at the most hazardous site in the city,” she said. “But any community individual who would have brought that up was excluded.” 

UC Berkeley Director of Community Relations Irene Hegarty said residents will get ample opportunity to weigh in on future UC development as the university continues to fine-tune its Long Range Development Plan. 

Chakos said space limitations at the City Club—a neutral venue—limited the number of participants, but promised that residents and commissioners would get plenty of opportunities to have their say. 

“This is a small first step in a larger community conversation that will be going on for a while.” 

She estimated the mitigation plan would go before commissions by January and be ready for Council approval by late spring. Implementation would not only qualify Berkeley for more mitigation funding, but—depending on the fate a proposed law now before Congress—could qualify Berkeley for more relief in the aftermath of a disaster.