Berkeley’s Katrina: Not If, But When By JESSE TOWNLEY Special to the Planet

Friday September 09, 2005

One of the most heart-wrenching facts of Hurricane Katrina’s horrific destruction is that so much of the death and devastation was completely avoidable. Another sobering fact is that the means to avoid so much pain and loss was well known and technologically low-tech. 

University of New Orleans geologist Shea Penland said, “It’s not if it will happen, It’s when.” (National Geographic, October 2004.)  

If the catastrophe we’re witnessing right now along the Gulf Coast was expected, how come funding and manpower to fight it was either drastically cut or never available? It’s popular to bad-mouth President Bush for cutting Army Corp of Engineering funding, FEMA grants, National Guard readiness, and wetlands preservation programs. However, he and his fellow far-right Republicans are not the only politicians to stick their heads in the sand in denial of pending natural disasters.  

This Gulf Coast hurricane is not the largest natural disaster destined to strike us. The July 18 issue of New Orleans City Business wrote, “A land-falling hurricane in New Orleans is the No. 3 biggest natural disaster for the United States. The first is an earthquake on the San Andreas [fault].”  

The Bay Area is built on two very active faults—the San Andreas and the Hayward. The latter is parallel to the Bay in the East Bay hills and runs through Memorial Stadium on the UC Berkeley campus. According to the California Geological Survey (www.consrv.ca.gov/cgs), a 6.5 earthquake solely on the northern Hayward fault (Berkeley’s section) would cause $9 billion in building damage—and that is not counting job, education, infrastructure, or medical costs, nor the number of dead and maimed residents. A combination of the northern and southern Hayward at 6.9 would cost $23 billion, while a repeat of the 1868 southern Hayward 6.7 quake would cost $15 billion (again, both costs are solely building damage, not total damage). 

A major quake is coming on the Hayward fault (66 percent chance in the next 30 years). There will be billions of dollars in damage and thousands of human casualties. What are we doing to minimize the inevitable destruction and death from this quake? The answer is heart-stopping: almost nothing. In fact, we’ve been doing less and less every year! 

Berkeley’s Office of Emergency Services, which coordinates disaster planning and disaster mitigation, has been mercilessly slashed to one part-time employee from a barely-adequate four employees in 2002. Those four employees were very overburdened but were able to get a lot of vital tasks accomplished, including much of the following:  

OES teaches us laypeople how to survive and to take care of ourselves and our at-risk neighbors after a major disaster. Residents should plan on being isolated from the rest of the state for one to two weeks after a major quake. The delay in outside help that happened in New Orleans will occur after a major quake. Our first responders—police, fire, and medical—will be concentrating on major structure failures (like the Nimitz and the Bay Bridge in 1989) so we will all be on our own.  

Each passing disaster teaches us that a coordinated response means less death and less damage, yet there is no functioning central office of disaster professionals who can plan, train, and practice this coordination among city, county, BUSD, U.C., and private entities like Bayer, Community Agencies Responding to Disaster (CARD), and the Red Cross.  

OES provides government and citizens with a destination point for new initiatives and on-going safety concerns. The current work on a soft-story ordinance echoes the earlier unreinforced masonry ordinance that OES helped coordinate with the Planning Department. The on-going planning for city-run disaster shelters, currently in limbo due to overburdened staff, must be completed. New initiatives, like convincing the Berkeley Unified School District to incorporate a flexible multi-grade disaster curriculum like the Red Cross’s “Masters Of Disaster,” should be coordinated by OES. 

Over the years, the city commission I serve on, the Disaster Council, has worked tirelessly with the OES and other city offices on bringing neighborhood volunteers into the process, saving precious staff time and adding new ideas like the almost-completed emergency caches at each Berkeley public school. 

The real tragedy is that none of this takes a lot of money. The cliché of an ounce of prevention equaling a pound of cure applies triply to disasters. The city has allowed a once-adequate OES to be slashed apart in 3 successive budget blood-lettings, leaving all of us at greater risk of avoidable death and injury.  

We need an OES that is firmly insulated from budget cuts and is adequately staffed. Otherwise everyone reading this will have less and less of a chance of surviving our pending “Katrina.” After Earthquake Katrina, will the current mayor and council be hailed as far-thinking protectors or as short-sighted inadvertent killers?  


Jesse Townley is the vice-chair of the Disaster Council and former executive director and board member of Easy Does It Disability Assistance.