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Yes, the Big One is Coming. No, It Doesn’t Mean the End of the World.

If your morning coffee was jolted by Monday’s reports in the Mercury News and SFGate predicting that the Big One is coming and most of Alameda will turn to liquefaction soup, you’re not alone. Nobody needs to start their day on this beautiful island worrying about how they will survive and get off of it in case of a huge earthquake. But facts are facts. And the fact seems to be that we probably are not as prepared as we need to be.

Alameda Post - a house with a crooked and leaning portion after an earthquake.
A house at Eighth Street and Haight Avenue after the 1906 earthquake. Photo Alameda Museum.

The Big One will test Alameda’s foundations

Alameda Post’s Historian, Dennis Evanosky, was quoted throughout both articles, so naturally we perked up (no coffee pun intended) when we read his dire prediction about what the Big One will do to our beloved island: “All those apartment houses along the South Shore, that’s all soup. “Everything the water side of Otis, everything the water side of Clement, everything the water side of Main and Central, that’s all man-made land. All of it. Including schools.” More soup.

Evanosky, an award-winning historian and documentarian, knows what he’s talking about. As he explained on a Post historical walking tour, Alameda was not an island until 1902, when the Army Corps of Engineers dredged through the southern neck of the peninsula to clear a through waterway for shipping. Landfill from the bay was then added around the island. But that wasn’t the end of the landfill story.



Alameda Post - Alameda's changing shoreline
Alameda’s shoreline has undergone significant change since the middle of the 19th century. Diagram Adam Gillitt.

Over time, more and more landfill has been added to Alameda Island. Today, as Evanosky pointed out, only a small interior part of the island is built on rock. The part of the island that extends from the old sea wall—now a chain of artificial lagoons—was created by the Utah Construction Company during the 1950s and 1960s. The housing developments built on that landfill are mostly tract homes and large apartment complexes, along with the South Shore Center, an outdoor shopping mall that has gone through many makeovers. All of these developments, as Evanosky noted, are in liquefaction zones and the land beneath them would likely turn to “soup” in the event of a major earthquake.

Alameda Post - the Hayward fault line which runs up the Bay Area from Fremont to Point Pinole. A red line on a map shows the fault line that could cause a lot of problems during the Big One
The Hayward Fault runs right through the Bay Area. Image USGS.

The troubles of an island

And that’s not the only reason to shake in your boots (pardon the quake reference). Even if you live in one of the old neighborhoods built on rock, as I do, you may be faced with other major issues if the Big One occurs on the Hayward Fault. For example, there are only five roads leading off the island. So unless you can catch a ferry—or have your own boat and can sail away—you may not be able to leave.

Case in point: Back in February, a fire at a PG&E substation near 50th Avenue and Coliseum Way in East Oakland caused a four-hour power outage in parts of Alameda. No big deal, right? Wrong. Two of the four drawbridges that provide a way to drive on or off the island were stuck open during the outage. A third one, the Fruitvale Railroad Bridge, also was open, but it always is, as trains no longer cross it.  Unless effective changes are made in the Alameda County Public Works Agency’s preparedness scenario, it’s possible, though highly unlikely, that more of the bridges could be stuck open if a major earthquake caused a total power outage. The only other way off the island is the underwater Posey Tube.

After that power outage, Post Publisher Adam Gillitt’s editorial entitled, “Are You Prepared?” provided information and links to the City’s disaster preparedness web page. The editorial also listed the U.S. Government’s Make a Plan page, which offers disaster preparedness suggestions and links to numerous downloadable booklets in several languages.

Alameda Post - a black and white image of a building partially destroyed by an earthquake
The NE corner of Park Street and Santa Clara Avenue after the 1906 earthquake. Photo Alameda Museum.
Alameda Post - modern photo of the NE corner of Park and Santa Clara, a stately building
The corner has since been rebuilt. Photo Adam Gillitt.

The good news

It’s not all bad news. Despite the existential gloom and doom out there, we can take comfort in the fact that numerous measures to mitigate the effects of an earthquake on the island are being taken. For example, the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) has now successfully installed a 3,000-foot earthquake-resistant pipeline between Oakland and Alameda, buried 160 feet below the estuary. The pipe is made of high-density polyethylene, rather than cast iron. According to the Mercury News report, “officials say the city’s water supply should now be able to withstand even the most violent quake on the Hayward Fault.”

Additionally, the City has a comprehensive Hazard Mitigation Plan that includes two plans, one summary, six chapters, and eight appendices. One of those is a Detailed Earthquake Risk Assessment. They’re obviously working on helping us to stay as safe as possible regardless of what Mother Nature tosses at us. Meanwhile, it’s up to us to do our part in being prepared. The City suggests:

We can’t stop earthquakes, but there’s no reason to get gloomy about it. There’s actually a lot we can do to prepare. Meanwhile, I think I’ll make myself another cup of Peet’s finest, roasted right here in Alameda.

Liz Barrett is the Copy Editor of the Alameda Post and writes about our community. Contact her via [email protected]. Her writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Liz-Barrett.

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