October 17, 1989 (Part 4)

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Detailed Description

On October 17, 1989, at 5:04 pm a magnitude M6.9 earthquake struck near Loma Prieta, California. It was a tragic reminder of the destructive power of earthquakes. However, it was also a watershed moment in seismic research. 30 years later, we revisit the earthquake through the eyes of the scientists who experienced it. And studied it. These are their stories. In Part 4 (of 4-part series), scientists answer a simple question: "Are we safer today than in 1989?" Their answers may surprise you.



Date Taken:

Length: 00:05:36

Location Taken: San Francisco, CA, US

Video Credits

Paul Laustsen, Susan Garcia


I think things have gotten better in terms of our awareness of the hazard. Before Loma Prieta you didn’t see nearly as much earthquake preparedness training as you see today. And we have these community search and rescue efforts now that are organized. So I think that people, first responders, are much more aware of the earthquake hazard than they were at the time of Loma Prieta. And I’d say we’ve come a long ways. I think the Bay Area is much better prepared today than it was 30 years ago. In terms of the engineering that’s been done to retrofit various major engineering projects – bridges, buildings. And just the emergency plans that have been put into place are much more detailed and much better than they were in 1989. And I think really, in a lot of ways, the population is better educated and better prepared. Which is also a crucial . . . crucial thing for earthquake preparedness. It’s hard to say. But just from the perspective that there are probably more people here than there were 30 years ago. Probably a lot more infrastructure . . . a lot more infrastructure on top of faults, and that there are faults that . . . even faults we don’t know about, but even faults that we know about, that are overdue, like the Hayward. I . . . you know, I wouldn’t say we’re safer. I would hope the population is taking, focusing in on what could happen and trying to take some precautions for themselves. But [it’s] hard to say. I don’t think we’re as well instrumented as we should be, now, compared to the hazard that we face. But I think the building structures that we have are much better than they were. A lot of that, I think, is not necessarily related to Loma Prieta as much as it is to Northridge [earthquake]. So . . . it is an earthquake in LA in 1994 maybe. But between Loma Prieta and Northridge you see a lot more cross-bracing in buildings that are going up. You see a lot more cladding around bridge abutments and columns. And you just generally get the feeling that the way that buildings are going up is much safer than they used to be. I think in some ways we are undoubtedly safer. The information that we’ve . . . we, the USGS and other earth scientists as well, have generated that shows the kind of damage, ground shaking, around the Bay Area or anywhere in California. That information has been used by PG&E, CalTrans, all the municipal water districts and the rails . . . sewage entities . . . to take a look at what is built, the built environment, and saying, “Is this going to make it?” Dams have been retrofitted in the East Bay because of these [earthquake] forecasts. Undoubtedly, that is going to result in less catastrophic damage. We are safer since 1989. People have done some estimates of the dollars spent on retrofitting and strengthening infrastructure, and the estimate is $72 to $80 billion dollars. All of this is a major change, and it evolved out of the occurrence of the Loma Prieta earthquake. I think that if that hadn’t happened, people would be in the same position just saying, “Yeah, I lived in California all my life. I know earthquakes.” But they really didn’t know. So we would be years and years behind in making these changes if we didn’t have the occurrence of Loma Prieta.