The Editor's Back Fence

Updated: Department of Urban Legends, Earthquake Prediction Division

Monday October 31, 2011 - 09:26:00 AM

[RUMOR UPDATE: Some callers now believe they've traced the origin of the imminent earthquake legend to a staffer in the Office of the Mayor, not an assistant to a councilmember as originally reported. The Planet was given the name of the suspect and we've asked her if it's true. She has declined comment, saying she wants wanted to talk to her chief of staff first. If Since she doesn't didn't call back with her story, we'll just have to add her name to this story without it. here's the name we were given:

Sbeydeh Viveros-Banderas, Assistant to the Mayor, Scheduler and Constituent Services . According to the office website, she is the office manager and handles the Mayor's schedule. She also runs the Intern program and handles many constituent services.

We have been trying without success to get anyone in the Mayor's office or the city's public relations office to confirm or deny that Ms. Viveros-Banderas was the student who originally told the earthquake story in a class at San Francisco State. No one there seems to be answering the phone at the moment (about 4 on Monday).  

We have also been unable to reach Professor Genie Stowers at SF State sent us this statement aboutwhat seemed to be an the email from her which launched the big Berkeley flap: 

I have this statement to make about an email I sent out last week; I will not be making any other comments. 

Last week, I sent out an email to family and close friends and colleagues about recent earthquakes. My intent was to pass on a message that they should take the occurrence of these recent earthquakes as an opportunity to make sure their earthquake kits and other emergency measures were up to date. 

It is unfortunate that this email instead went viral and has caused great concern among many in the Berkeley area.  

This message was not intended to be a commentary on earthquake science, on City of Berkeley preparedness, or on anything else except that folks should get ready. The message was intended to be, preparedness is good. 

I apologize for what has happened and the concerns that it caused. It was a mistake and I regret that it happened.  

Genie Stowers

Over the weekend, just in time for Halloween, we received many copies of the following text from an email purportedly signed by a professor at San Francisco State:

“One of the students in my class tonight works in Berkeley City Hall (assistant to one of the city council members); the Berkeley City folks have been getting briefings by geologists (USGS?) on the swarm of earthquakes recently happening directly under Berkeley on the Hayward Fault. She told our class about the content of these briefings. 

“They have been told that what is particularly concerning to geologists is that these earthquakes have been so deep. And because of the type of fault it is, they can somehow tell that these smaller earthquakes (there was a 1.6 about an hour ago plus 2 or 3 in the past few week or so that have been 3.6 or above) build up pressure on the fault, not reduce it. 

“They are saying that because of these swarms they are predicting there is a 30% chance of an earthquake above a 6.0 magnitude on the Hayward Fault in the next two to three weeks. This is, of course, much higher and concentrated than other predictions have been. They have subsequently been working with their neighborhood groups to help ensure preparedness. So, to be ready, prepare with at least 3-5 days of water (1 gallon per person per day) and food for that period of time. I am going to update our earthquake preparedness kit tomorrow. Be prepared!” 

This just in: No one knows how to predict earthquakes with this kind specificity. NO ONE. There are abundant discussions of this on the internet, most particularly the summary at

We have a call in for the professor—perhaps she can tell us who the mythical assistant who seems to be spreading this urban legend is. Or why she believed it. 

Meanwhile, we’re happy to announce once again the Department of Urban Legends’ annual offer to pay $100 to anyone who offers proof that any trick-or-treater was poisoned or otherwise harmed by a stranger. Doesn’t happen, never has happened. 





And now, here, straight from the horse's mouth this morning, is the City of Berkeley's official disclaimer of the earthquake:scare prediction: 









*****From:*Daniel, Christine  

*****Sent:*Monday, October 31, 2011 9:29 AM 

*****Subject:*Response to email re: Earthquake Preparedness 

Honorable Mayor and Councilmembers, this responds to inquiries we have received regarding an email that is circulating. Please feel free to share this information with anyone who is interested. Thanks. -Christine. 

We understand that after the earthquakes in the last couple of weeks, rumors have begun to circulate that City officials are meeting with representatives from the US Geological Survey (USGS) and it has been claimed that the USGS officials are predicting earthquakes. This is not accurate. The City of Berkeley has not been contacted by anyone from USGS in this regard, and in any event, the USGS does not predict earthquakes. As we all know, in the wake of disasters or even smaller earthquakes such as we have experienced recently, it is not unusual for misinformation to spread. However it is important to remember that while scientists all over the world are working to better understand earthquakes, no one has the ability to either predict them, nor to know whether small shakes are increasing or decreasing the pressure on a fault. 

What follows is a quote from the USGS website: 

///"Neither the USGS nor Caltech nor any other scientists have ever predicted a major earthquake. They do not know how, and they do not expect to know how any time in the foreseeable future. However based on scientific data, probabilities can be calculated for potential future earthquakes. For example, scientists estimate that over the next 30 years the probability of a major [earthquake] occurring in the San Francisco Bay area is 67% and 60% in Southern California."/ 

The USGS does not know if the small earthquakes that shake us frequently build up pressure or release pressure on a fault. For more information from the USGS: 

While no one can predict an earthquake in the short term, we do know there is a high likelihood of a major earthquake on the Hayward Fault. The City of Berkeley, like all cities in the Bay Area, strongly urges its community members to maintain high levels of preparedness for all disasters. This includes three to five days worth of supplies, emergency plans for family, neighborhoods and pets, structural retrofits of buildings, and emergency education for everyone in the family. 

In addition, residents should know how the City will communicate disaster information. Whether we are warning residents of coming hazards or how to respond to current events, the City has several official modes of communicationthat it may use, including: 

·The Berkeley Emergency Notification System (BENS): 

·1610 AM (some warnings may be rebroadcast on other stations, including KPFA, 89.5) 

·_www.CityofBerkeley.info_ (emergency information will be posted on the home page)  

·Press releases and media briefings 

For specific information about how you can be ready for an earthquake, please  

*******Christine S. Daniel* 

*Deputy City Manager*