Being Prepared

A number of people who are reading this journal about the Hayward Fault in Berkeley, and the dire predictions of seismologists and geologists of a huge earthquake in the near future, have asked me what they can do to be better prepared.

It depends on lots of factors, the primary one being whether you own your house, or rent a house, or live in an owned or rented condominium or apartment. If you own your home you are in full control. Otherwise your situation depends totally on your relationship with the landlord, the condominium association, or your TIC neighbors.

This section of my journal addresses homeowners primarily (because I am one), so you are going to have to pick and choose from my recommendations.

You may well ask about my qualifications to write such a chapter on being prepared in my journal. Before I retired I was in charge of emergency preparedness for the computer information systems at EBMUD, and worked with many others involved in other aspects of preparation for seismic events, such as reservoirs failing, pipes bursting, and pumping plants losing their power. In addition to that, I have personally prepared my home and my environment so that I can survive for days or weeks after the big one, and have obsessively thought through all of the possible scenarios.

Also, you should search the Internet for anything and everything you can find on this subject. Government agencies, Fire Departments, and other organizations have written lots of good information which I do not intend to repeat here. The Los Angeles Fire Department has one of the most comprehensive guides that I have found anywhere.

What I am writing here reflects my own thoughts and my own experience. If you disagree with anything, or with my recommendations as to priorities, do so in the comments section, or go and write your own blog. The more opinions the merrier. Our readers will have to pick and choose, and think for themselves.  

Being prepared, of course, costs money. Money for home improvements and reinforcements, and money for spare food and water and other stuff, and a place to put it all. I have organized the following sections into priorities according to the spending of money.

The first $400.

If you are a homeowner, get an Emergency Seismic Gas Shutoff Valve installed on the gas line coming in to your house.  That should be easy (except for finding the $400), and just takes a phone call to a plumbing firm, but even if you are a renter, try and persuade your landlord to do so. Having such a device installed is now required in many municipalities, but not yet in Berkeley.

This device shuts off the gas flow automatically upon the shaking associated with a seismic event registering about 5.0 or more on the Richter Scale. The force of an earthquake of that magnitude or greater has the potential of tugging on the gas pipes below the house and pulling them apart, with the potential for an immediate fire lit by pilot lights, or a fire later on caused by the build-up of gas which could be ignited.

Any good licensed plumbing contractor can install one for you. Do not try to do it yourself, unless you are a good licensed plumbing contractor, in which case you have already done it, haven’t you?

Gas Shutoff Valve Closeup

The valve is installed right after the PG&E-owned  equipment,  at the beginning of the pipe that goes in to your house. Following is an overview of the whole setup.

 Gas Shutoff Valve Overview 

The main downside to having an Emergency Gas Shutoff Valve installed is that if you hit it with a wheelbarrow or whatever, it may shut off the gas, and you will have to turn it back on and relight the pilot lights, if you know how to do that safely, or get PG&E to do it. And if we have an earthquake of a magnitude more than 5.0 on the Richter Scale, but at less than a critical level which would have caused fires, hundreds or thousands of homeowners will need PG&E’s help to get their gas going again, and that may take a few days.

If you cannot have one of these seismic shutoff valves installed (e.g. your landlord won’t pay for it), at the very least have a crescent wrench stored nearby so that you can do it in a hurry if you smell or hear gas flowing after the earthquake. You can find a good guide on how to do this on PG&E’s Web Site.

The next $0, or however much you want to spend.

This next step can cost you absolutely nothing, or you can spend a lot of money if you want. But you can start with no money at all.

Most of the damage from an earthquake is usually due to the ensuing fires. That was true with the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, and was true in the Marina District of San Francisco after the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989. The next great earthquake on the Hayward Fault will be no exception. In fact, if the earthquake happens during the dry fire season (June to November), the resulting firestorm will be far, far worse than the Oakland Hills Fire of October 1991.

Avoiding fires due to broken gas pipes (the primary cause of the 1906 San Francisco conflagration) would go a long way to averting this devastating damage, which is why I put the $400 Emergency Seismic Gas Shutoff Valve at the top of the list, but unfortunately hardly anybody has one yet. Even if they did, there will be lots of other causes of fires after the earthquake, which is why this chapter addresses that issue.

Maintaining a defensible space, free of vegetation, wood, accumulated garbage, old cars, and other combustible stuff, is critically important, and not just in preparation for the earthquake either. Keeping a defensible space clear does not just apply to homeowners. In my walks throughout Berkeley I have seen piles of combustible material outside back doors, in front yards, and on balconies of rental units. All of that stuff will contribute to the spread of fires after the earthquake. Get rid of it now. It costs nothing.

The City of Oakland Fire Department mandates strict standards regarding keeping property clear of combustible material within 30 feet of a home, but the City of Berkeley Fire Department does not seem to be as strict. I have seen the evidence of that time and time again in my walks throughout the Berkeley Hills. The Panoramic Hills area, for example, has so many hazards due to dry vegetation and combustible material surrounding, or even on top of, highly flammable houses, that it is a disaster waiting to happen.

You can call the City of Berkeley to arrange for a once-a-year pickup of all of your accumulated stuff, or vegetation that you have cut down. They also have a debris bin program. Take advantage of it.

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