Loma Prieta Quake Still Guides How San Jose’s Emergency Services Chief Does His Job

The clock read 5:04pm when he felt the first jolt. The date: Oct. 17, 1989.

Ray Riordan, an emergency preparedness expert by trade, stood on the second floor of a wood-framed building in Pleasanton when the tremors started. He recalls being in a hallway, grasping at walls that stood six feet apart—well beyond his wingspan. Yet, as the building began swaying and buckling, he said his arms stretched easily from wall to wall.

The 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake took 63 lives and injured 3,757 more, making it the most devastating seismic activity in California since 1906.

Three decades later, Riordan still works in the disaster preparedness field. But surviving Loma Prieta left an indelible imprint on his psyche and informs his work to this day.

Shortly after the 2017 Coyote Creek floods that displaced thousands of people from their homes in San Jose, the city hired him as director of the Office of Emergency Management. At the time, city officials faced widespread backlash for their slow, stumbling response to the floods, which prompted evacuation orders for 14,000 residents and racked up a nearly $100 million bill for property damage.

Once Riordan took the helm, officials spent months updating San Jose’s emergency operations plan. Earlier this year, they put it to use when heavy storms pummeled the city once more. “It was a matter of trying to organize that office,” he recounts. “I think we’re headed on the right track. When we put out an evacuation order, we were much more prepared and capable of communicating with the public and operating our emergency operations center.”

The rainstorm wouldn’t be the only time this year that San Jose had to initiate its emergency operations center. City officials went back in disaster mode just last week when PG&E began shutting off power to tens of thousands of South Bay denizens to prevent aging power lines from sparking another wildfire as devastating as last year’s Camp Fire, for which PG&E shouldered the blame.

About 800,000 Northern California customers lost power as part of the rolling blackouts. In San Jose alone, a conservatively estimated 60,000 residents in the Alum Rock, Evergreen and Almaden Valley neighborhoods endured a couple days without electricity. Because of the outage, the lights at 68 San Jose intersections went dark, causing jammed roads and slow commutes. And about 150 city employees clocked 3,000 hours in the field monitoring the whole situation.

While most of San Jose was unaffected by the blackouts, the power shutoff served as a de facto training scenario for city officials. Many of the emergency measures undertaken during the blackouts would apply in the event of California’s next big quake.

“For us in San Jose, an earthquake is at the top of our [emergency preparedness] list,” San Jose’s Deputy City Manager Kip Harkness says. “If we are ready for a quake, we are 80 percent ready for almost anything else that can happen. The shutoff is a subset of what will happen in a quake. If we’re quake ready, we’re ready for a shutoff.”

After the Loma Prieta earthquake, an estimated 1.4 million PG&E customers lost power and more than 150,000 customers shut off their own gas to prevent fires.

Riordan says San Jose aims to become “quake ready” in the next three years by improving its plans for evacuations and mass shelter and by building a state-of-the-art emergency operations center. The new disaster prep headquarters will be funded with dollars from Measure T, a 2018 bond measure that earmarked $650 million for public safety, infrastructure and disaster preparedness.

Riordan says Measure T will also help upgrade freeway overpasses, which are particularly dangerous during severe temblors. After all, collapsed bridges made for much of the death toll during the ‘89 quake. The double-deck Nimitz Freeway in Oakland killed 42 people alone when it came crashing down.

“I’ve been with the city 2½ years, and the city manager’s taking a great stand in making emergency preparedness one of his hallmark priorities,” Riordan says. “The city has a direction and goal to be as ready as possible in a seismic event.”

Another part of San Jose’s earthquake readiness involves updating and retrofitting buildings prone to caving in or toppling over. Harkness says a majority of the tallest buildings in downtown are up to seismic code since San Jose’s high-rise boom occurred after the Loma Prieta quake. However, he adds, about 1,000 “soft story” buildings remain in dire need of retrofitting.

“A soft story building is a building where the ground floor is a different composition then the upper floor,” Harkness explains. “You see a lot of these in San Jose [built in the] late 1960s, early 1970s with a ground-floor garage and then maybe four or five levels of apartment on top. If those have not been retrofitted, those are very unsafe because the building starts to sway at two different rhythms, and that can lead to a collapse.”

A few weeks ago, San Jose received a grant that would help cover the costs of researching and enacting mandatory retrofits for out-of-code buildings. But as the city struggles to get shovels in the ground to build more homes, bolstering 1,000 structures could potentially undermine efforts to build up San Jose’s housing stock.

“It is not coincidental that many of these buildings are also where our most affordable rents are partially because of the nature of the construction,” Harkness says. “We want to make sure that as we mandate retrofit, we do so in a way that landlords can afford to do it in a way that doesn’t pass those costs onto the tenants.”

Unlike unreinforced masonry, Harkness adds, retrofitting soft-story buildings can often happen without pushing residents out and at a much lower cost.

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