September/October 2006

The Next 100 Years of Earthquake Science, Engineering, and Emergency Management—It’s Time to Unite

This year’s 100th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake is giving us the opportunity to reflect on what we have accomplished over the past century, showcase our passion for seismic safety, and talk fervently about what needs to be done. The highly visual, three-dimensional ground motion simulations produced by the seismological community clearly illustrate the advancements in understanding that 100 years of seismological research has produced. The national consensus that has produced the first national seismic design codes for structures clearly points to the achievements of the engineering professions. One hundred and fifty years of observations and collaboration has produced clear instructions about how to design earthquake-ready structures. Emergency response plans that focus on safe evacuation, shelter and interim housing, vulnerable populations, long-term recovery, and exercises at the federal, state and local level give emergency planners reason to be cautiously optimistic that they are ready to handle the next “big one.” Good job all!

Conservatism is usually a safe place to be, but excessive conservatism can yield a sense of hopelessness that leads to inaction.

The 100th Anniversary Earthquake Conference commemorating the 1906 earthquake, held in San Francisco 18–21 April 2006, was a capstone event for earthquake professionals worldwide. For the first time, earth scientists, earthquake engineers, and emergency managers from California, the nation, and around the world came together to explore recent advances in their respective fields, share best practices, teach fundamentals, and advance an expert opinion on the changes that are needed in public policies related to earthquakes and their effects on communities. Since all the sessions were open to the 4,000+ participants, the meeting involved a considerable amount of interdisciplinary participation and generated a better understanding of the issues that each discipline faces.

The meeting also clearly demonstrated the value of bringing all the earthquake disciplines together and orchestrating a common-voice public policy message that is broad-based, understandable, and fully supported by each community represented. The message focused on what would happen in a repeat of the 1906 event today and what steps could be taken to significantly improve the region’s resilience. The message was heard by government officials, politicians, and the media. The message attracted a significant number of government officials and politicians, all of whom endorsed our position. We were heard because we spoke with one voice, and the media carried our message worldwide.

The message was summarized, as follows, in the conference publication Managing Risks in Earthquake Country, which is available on the conference Web site, http://www.1906eqconf. org/index.htm.

The earthquake professionals of the 100th Anniversary Earthquake Conference have developed an action agenda for the region’s residents, businesses, earthquake professionals, and governments to increase safety, reduce losses, and ensure a speedier recovery when the next major earthquake strikes. In summary, the agenda looks specifically at what is needed to develop a culture of preparedness and calls on all residents, businesses, and governments to know their risks and take responsibility for risk management and preparedness. It challenges governments, public agencies, building owners, and the engineering community to target the most dangerous buildings, essential facilities, and community-serving infrastructure for strategic investments in mitigation. It calls on governments, insurers, and the region’s major industries to collaborate to ensure that adequate resources are available for recovery. With these actions and a renewed emphasis on safety, Northern California can safeguard its extraordinary cultural and economic vitality and rebound quickly following the next major earthquake.

Bringing the earthquake professionals’ communities together and crafting a common voice was neither simple nor quick. Three and one-half years of planning led to five days of meetings that drew the communities together. It took a mutually developed memorandum of understanding among all of the organizations, monthly meetings of a carefully balanced steering committee, and hundreds of hours of discussion, collaboration, and compromise. Crafting the common-voice message required broad-based thinking on everyone’s part and a general recognition that each discipline has an important part to play, a reality that traditionally has not been widely recognized.

Indeed, the serious lack of communication that has kept science, engineering, and management separate for the past 100 years has fostered misunderstanding and lack of appreciation for the role that each plays. My personal observations lead me to conclude that emergency managers would do well to take into consideration the best thinking available about the seismic hazard that their communities actually face and the progress that has been made in the built environment through thoughtful earthquake engineering. Earthquake engineers should take full advantage of the site-specific seismic hazard information available from the earth science community and tailor their new designs and evaluations of existing buildings to the specific hazards that have been defined. And the earth science community would do well to develop ground-motion characteristics that better match the needs of other earthquake professionals and leave the loss estimates to the engineers.

As earthquake professionals, I believe we are being excessively conservative because we are ignoring each other. We need to replace excessive conservatism with a carefully balanced conservatism that serves everyone’s best interests.

The consequence of the misunderstanding is conservatism in planning, design, and expected loss estimates. Conservatism is usually a safe place to be, but excessive conservatism can yield a sense of hopelessness that leads to inaction. As earthquake professionals, I believe we are being excessively conservative because we are ignoring each other. We need to replace excessive conservatism with a carefully balanced conservatism that serves everyone’s best interests.

The positive ground gained at the 100th Anniversary Earthquake Conference suggests it is time to unite earth science, earthquake engineering, and emergency management into a permanent community of earthquake professionals. While we need to maintain our individual organizations and initiatives, we need to meet occasionally (more than once a century!) to maintain our focus on how to advance each discipline in a consistent manner that supports our common objective of improving seismic safety. We also need to always speak with a common voice. At the closing session of the conference, each of the co-convening organizations pledged to work together to maintain and advance the new level of cooperation and collaboration that had begun during the planning of this anniversary conference.

This unity needs to be stimulated by the professional organizations, supported by the individual earthquake professionals, and illustrated by our actions as citizens of our communities. It is clear that our communities want seismic safety and will pay for it. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom takes pride in the state of readiness his city has achieved and soberly reported the need for much more. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., challenged us to report dangerous conditions to local governments and insist that they develop and regularly exercise regional response plans.

The Bay Area is spending $12.1 billion retrofitting and rebuilding toll bridges to assure that they will be available to support a recovery; Pacific Gas & Electric is investing billions on its networks; and the East Bay Municipal Utility District and Bay Area Rapid Transit are retrofitting their systems. Seventy percent of Bay Area residents believe a major earthquake will occur in their lifetimes, 60 percent claim to be prepared, and more than 60 percent are willing to spend more on preparedness. As earthquake professionals, our job is to make sure that we continue to speak with a common voice so that the public understand the hazards and risks and how best to address them.

As citizens, we need to set a good example and serve as a resource to our own communities. We as individuals should each understand how our homes, offices, and schools will perform in an earthquake and take steps to mitigate unacceptable conditions. We as individuals need to be ready to respond and survive on our own for 72 hours before outside help arrives, and we need written response plans that include the vulnerable people we are responsible for and live near. We as individuals need to be financially prepared, insured, and ready with clear plans for how we will recover in the aftermath of a major earthquake.

As earthquake professionals, we need to look closely at our perceptions and attitudes about our fellow earthquake professionals. We must develop a broad perspective and become knowledgeable in all related areas while we proactively teach about our own expertise. We need to seek out and understand new developments in science, engineering, and management as they are developed and validated, and we must embrace the changes they demand. We need to be advocates for preparedness in our hometowns, willing to speak up in a clear and understandable manner. We need to watch out for excessive conservatism in our areas of expertise and avoid unnecessary concern about liability. We need to be politically active; such activism allows us to be expert resources, and it provides public openness about how our issues affect local communities.

As leaders in professional organizations, we need to proactively advance the state of the art and the state of the practice in a manner consistent with the other disciplines of the earthquake profession. We each need to reach out to the others and participate in their discussions, share our advancements, and seek refinements to the common-voice messages. We need to faithfully teach the basics at our annual state-of-the-art conferences to educate those who are just joining in. We need to advocate public policy in our fields of expertise with a constant eye toward advocating for the other earthquake professions and being consistent with the common-voice messages.

We can all be proud of what has been accomplished in the past 100+ years. We all know that there is much to be done and that the competition for resources and attention in this highly complex and ever “flattening” world is fierce. We have learned in the past year the value of standing together with a commonvoice message. We have also learned that there is a lot to be learned from each earthquake discipline. As earthquake professionals, choosing to work together, we can accelerate the achievement of seismic safety worldwide.

Chris D. Poland, SE
President and CEO, Degenkolb Engineers
General Chair, 100th Anniversary Earthquake Conference
Email- cpoland [at] degenkolb.com

To send a letter to the editor regarding this opinion or to write your own opinion, contact the SRL editor by e-mail.




Posted: 31 August 2006