Resources & Climate

Universal lessons from the Napa earthquake

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By Ricky Passarelli: 

The recent Napa earthquake highlights just how far we’ve come with disaster-proofing cities. But while luckily there were no fatalities, one overlooked issue remains: widespread gas and water main breaks. In a time when the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) rates the status of US water and gas infrastructure as a D and D+ respectively, the Napa quake could be a prioritizing event, showcasing gaps that still threaten our communities, even with some of the latest emergency plans in place. 

Despite limited building damage, the most worrisome aftermath of last week’s quake actually resided underground.  The USGS reported that the ground motion was some of the strongest ever recorded in the area, actually rupturing the ground in places. While all major Bay Area bridges were inspected and cleared, and relatively few buildings were deemed unsafe, there were a reported 60 water main breaks and 100 gas leaks in Napa alone.

This may not seem like much, except that gas-related problems are responsible for up to half of post-earthquake fires, including 16 in the 1989 Loma Prieta, 54 in the 1994 Northridge, CA, and 36 in the 1995 Kobe, Japan earthquakes. Following this week’s quake, a gas leak is suspected to have caused a fire that burned down four homes in a mobile home community.  A cracked water main hindered response efforts, as firefighters were forced to wait for a pump truck to arrive.  Widespread damage could have occurred if the area had been surrounded by denser housing or if additional mains had been broken.  Such was the case with the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake, where an estimated 90% of the overall destruction was from fires, mainly from gas-leaks, and not the 7.8 magnitude earthquake itself.

Napa has a diligent fire department that is trained to handle such situations, particularly when quakes are involved. The local utility, KPG&E, even uses the latest handheld technology to quickly identify leaks post-disaster and responded amazingly well to problems. But the Bay Area is one of the most quake-resistant regions in the country. Nearby UC-Berkeley and Stanford have two of the best earthquake research centers in the world, and building codes throughout the area require strict standards for high-Richter threats. Even so, the Napa Fire Department Operations Chief indicted Sunday that their resources were exhausted trying to fix gas leaks, water main breaks, and fight six different fires that broke out at once.

The Bay Area has of course developed far beyond its 1906 days with a burgeoning high-tech sector, cutting-edge structural engineering, and progressive city planning. With modern steel and glass buildings among smaller timber and masonry structures, it also isn’t the matchbox it once was. But the greater metro area — which otherwise is a model of thoughtful preparation — still is having issues with its most basic and essential utility services when disaster strikes.  A similar or stronger quake, especially in a more urban or less-prepared area of the world, could push fire response teams to the brink. 

For instance, Lima, Peru is overdue for a large quake. The city, which holds 1/3 of the country’s population, many of whom cook with gas from municipal household connections, has an all-volunteer fire department and limited water pressure due to its high altitude. In the face of future threats, how can cities like Lima incorporate these concerns into planning efforts? 

Perhaps the answer is simply with better coordination. If cities ensure they have the latest gas-leak detectors, alternative water sources, and prep fire departments appropriately, fires can be more easily contained.  The California Seismic Safety Commission recently recommended San Francisco look into building a portable water supply system, and LA build a saltwater high pressure system, for this very reason. 

Reinvesting in research and updating infrastructure standards to be more akin to building codes would be another option.  Tall buildings utilize dampeners and innovative materials that mitigate shock damage, but many older cities still have basic cast iron or copper gas and water lines susceptible to cracking.  Utilizing high-density plastic or bracing key runs of pipe, for instance, could cut down on problems in a disaster.  Albeit pricey (pipe replacement can cost $1 million per mile), mandating new codes and incentivizing technology development could bring cost down over time. 


Each city will have to decide for themselves their best path forward, based on budget constraints, risk, and first-response capacities. Regardless, it’s an issue that — as past weeks have reminded us — exists even in the best of circumstances, among those most prepared. As the damage and memory of the 2014 Napa earthquake fades, hopefully the meaningful lessons won’t fade with it. 

Follow Environmental Security and Stimson on Twitter.

Photo credit: CA Dept of Insurance via flickr

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