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SF Port: Embarcadero May Need $3 Billion to Ward Off Earthquake Catastrophe

Could we achieve the same result by pumping Benjamins straight into the landfill?


With the weekend's earthquakes in Ecuador and Japan, and San Francisco's anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and fire this week, it's hard not to feel apprehensive about our own seismic forecast. The Port of San Francisco recently sounded the alarm about the vulnerability of the Embarcadero from Fisherman's Wharf to AT&T Park and the cost of protecting it, which the port puts somewhere between $2 billion and $3 billion. That's quite a large price tag to shore up, what, four of the city's 47-ish square miles? And yet the economic consequences of not doing so are stark, as the LA Times notes. A hefty $1.6 billion in port assets and an additional $2.1 billion in annual rent, business income, and wages depend on the structural integrity of a three-mile-long seawall built on…mud. Staggering as those numbers are, they get us wondering: Could we be in for an economic thumping in other parts of the city?

"It's hard to say one neighborhood or area of the city will be more affected than another," says Patrick Otellini, San Francisco's chief resilience officer. "Earthquakes come in all shapes and sizes. So you have this whole myriad of conditions, like the depth of the seismic activity and the location of the earthquake's epicenter, but also soil condition, sea level rise, and building conditions." Which pinpoints the risk to…pretty much everywhere. 

Or, in the words of Lieutenant Jonathan Baxter of the San Francisco Fire Department: "If we did have an earthquake, no matter where it hits, that's going to be the weakest point."

Facing such unknowns, yesterday the city announced a new emergency preparedness strategy, Resilient San Francisco. With probability working against us—namely, a 76 percent chance that the Bay Area will experience a 7.0-magnitude earthquake in the next 30 years—the strategy calls for the retrofitting of hazardous buildings and infrastructure, adapting our waterfront to sea level rise, and, yes, strengthening that pesky seawall. These kinds of preventive measures, says Otellini, "benefit the city as a whole, rather than focus on neighborhood hazardousness."

To withstand a big tremblor, the Embarcadero seawall needs improvements to its foundation, the addition of stone columns, and the replacement and relocation of some utilities. Without those, a big quake could compromise the seawall and amplify damage to the thicket of buildings and infrastructure that we've packed onto our waterfront. The piers. The promenade and road. Muni light rail. The Ferry Building stands a better-than-average chance, given its survival in 1906, but the rest of it? We just don't know.

Regardless of the unpredictability and seemingly ubiquitous nature of these "weak points," Baxter is quick to note that we have, in fact, come a long way since 1906. For one, there's the auxiliary water system that should work most of the time. There's also the proliferation of community outreach and training programs such as NERT, which helps stockpile caches of disaster materials and works alongside the fire department to operate an auxiliary radio system. And for those stuck in the rubble, we have two full-time rescue teams equipped with fiberoptic cameras and rescue dogs.

All of this comes as a comfort but none of it should be taken lightly. We are now more than seven years overdue for the 7.0 earthquake that shook Hayward in 1868 and should strike, on average, every 140 years. In the words of Otellini, "Emergency prevention is work that is never quite done. You can't just check off a box and think it's complete. It's more of process. It's more of a mindset." A mindset we'll have to foster, if we wish to outlast the Next Big One.

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