Readiness chief is well prepared for the next quake

Published May 4, 2016
Front page of the San Francisco Chronicle following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Front page of the San Francisco Chronicle following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Duke Roberts is chief of readiness for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers San Francisco District. His job is to make sure his agency is prepared to respond to natural disasters including the kind never far from the minds of San Franciscans: earthquakes. He vividly remembers the October day in 1989 when a deadly magnitude 6.9 quake shook the city and caused billions of dollars in damage, the last major temblor to strike the Bay Area.

"I was at work but could not get home until 3 am," he recalls. That's because bridges, including the Bay Bridge which was heavily damaged in the quake as well as the Bart underground subway system were shut down, leaving thousands of commuters stranded at the height of the evening rush hour. Perhaps most memorably, millions around the world watched on live television as game three of the World Series between the Oakland A's and the San Francisco Giants which was underway at Candlestick Park was disrupted by the unfolding event. "The city had to charter ferries to get people home," said Roberts, who is among the handful of employees in the Corps' San Francisco district who was working for the agency at the time of the Loma Prieta quake and still is today.

Federal law designates the Corps' San Francisco district the lead federal agency in the Bay Area to respond in the event of a future devastating quake, and as chief of readiness for a frontline agency, Roberts is at the tip of the spear. Despite the often-repeated warnings about the 'big one' still to come, he is uncharacteristically sanguine in discussing how events would unfold during a region-wide emergency of a similar or larger magnitude. "The governor is going to send a request and the president is going to issue a declaration. Then, the Corps would be responsible for removing debris from waters, providing structural engineers to assist the city in identifying structures that may have been damaged and any other duties as deemed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and in cooperation with city and state agencies."

The longstanding requirement that the Corps' San Francisco district ensures the bay remains free of debris for navigation would become even more critical during an earthquake since ferry service would likely be essential if major roads, bridges and subways are shut down as they were during the '89 quake. "The (debris removal vessel) Dillard would sail from Sausalito to the city to pick up the district commanders and take them to a command center where they could operate, but at the same time would also have responsibility to ensure that the bay is navigable for other emergency vessels," said Roberts.

But what if a quake or another natural disaster was so severe that it left the district itself unable to respond? As you might expect from the chief of readiness, Roberts said there are also plans for that. "The (district's Army) commander would move his flag from here to the Sacramento district and, depending on the severity of the event, he would make a decision that Sacramento or Los Angeles or Albuquerque or some other district would come in to perform our mission until such time that we could get back on our feet."

That's happened before. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the nation's costliest natural disaster, Roberts said it took the New Orleans district two years before it could get up and running again, during which time the Corps had to rely on other districts to lead recovery efforts there.

And if a natural disaster of the same magnitude strikes the Bay Area? "If the San Francisco district cannot respond within the first 48 to 96 hours, then we are considered the victim district."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers San Francisco district is marking 150 years of providing service along the Pacific Coast and is offering anecdotes, historical profiles and events to mark the anniversary.