SF Apartment : July 2016
The Best-Laid Plan
On October 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake shook the earth, sending bricks and debris cascading to the ground, igniting fire, and stopping the Oakland A’s — San Francisco Giants World Series. And contrary to what I expected, there did not seem to be many heroes. Instead, there were a great many scared people.
I lived in downtown San Francisco at the time, where the shock waves caused only minor damage. Shock waves are capricious and travel through the ground wherever they meet the least resistance. Much of the center city area sits on limestone, which deadens the effect of the shock. But in other areas that sit on landfill—a watery combination of dirt and other forms of debris—such as San Francisco’s Financial District, the shock waves sliced through the porous ground with wild abandon, causing devastation.
I work for a property management company, and although I did not work for them in 1989, I was curious to know how their buildings fared during that earthquake over a quarter-century ago. I turned to several resident managers who managed the buildings at that time and asked them to relate how their buildings withstood the earthquake.
All of them were very forthcoming, but they mostly said the same thing: Although the damage was minimal, the tenants’ senses were overrun with fear of the earthquake and what was to come. Yet, despite their fear, rarely was there a case of panic. Most people followed their resident manager’s instructions in varying degrees and speeds. The resident managers at that time recounted that the old, infirm, and confused escaped the untrustworthy walls of their apartments with the help of tenants with whom they had not often exchanged a word during years of residency.
Another thing the resident managers’ stories had in common was that the people offering their less able neighbors simple gestures of kindness and support should be considered heroes—in addition to the San Francisco Fire and Police Departments, which also generated their share of praise.
Check Your Utilities
Perhaps the most important thing I learned while conducting research for this article: when an earthquake or other calamity hits, turn off your electricity and gas as soon as possible. Commit this to memory.
Haywire electricity can cause fires and make you shockingly aware of your surroundings. And a gas leak can cause a deadly explosion.
After the Loma Prieta earthquake hit, electricity was out for days, even though PG&E restored power as quickly as they could. Of all the public utilities and services the property managers discussed, PG&E took the brunt of their enmity. Buildings without a backup battery of some sort suffered the longest, and I have no doubt that includes the vast majority of apartment houses. However, once the lights are back on, life often goes back to being comfortable and normal. The psychological comfort afforded by electricity should not be underestimated.
With gas, however, there is more of a gray area. Most of us know very little about gas and how it reacts to an interrupted environment. Others know just enough to choose a dangerous precedent. I’ll explain what I mean using two scenarios:
In one scenario, an earthquake strikes an apartment building erected on landfill. The property manager should shut the gas off where it enters the building and spread the word that there should be no candles or other open flames. Broken gas lines inside or outside of the building need only a simple open flame to determine where or when they explode. This is a no-brainer.
In another scenario, an earthquake strikes an apartment building built on rock, say limestone. Common sense says to take no chances and shut off the gas where it enters the building. Yet, I have heard a few objections from some of the resident managers.
Suppose, they said, a cursory inspection reveals no broken gas lines. If the property manager shuts off the gas anyway, days could pass before PG&E comes to turn on the main in-house gas connection. And when they do, an army of gas inspectors must be brought in to relight every pilot in every apartment in the building. Until that happens, all of the units in the building will be without gas. In a single home, there might be only one or two pilot lights. For an apartment building, though, relighting them all could be a seemingly endless task. Even the new pilotless ranges need to be checked. It could be weeks until your residents are cooking again.
As resident managers, we need to consider all of our options and be informed before disaster strikes. One thing to keep in mind is that PG&E can and probably will shut off the gas outside of your building either way, securing a potentially hazardous area of the city. In that case, the decision was made for you. Problem solved. You are out of gas, which is probably the likely scenario anyway.
Plan of Action
It is easy to say that everyone should be prepared for an earthquake. We all know that certain items should be set aside in case of a major emergency. But having a general idea isn’t enough; a real, solid plan is needed. The Bay Area will continue to experience large earthquakes, and resident managers have an obligation to the tenants in their buildings to be prepared.
One of the biggest advantages of living in an apartment building with multiple units is that there will always be people prepared and ready to help. Before the next earthquake, assign tasks and provide equipment, like flashlights and extra batteries. (Pro tip: make certain all of the flashlights use the same size battery.) Establish a meeting place away from your building in an open area, like a park. Encourage residents to stock up on potable water (a must), canned food and energy bars, cans of Sterno for outdoor cooking, warm clothing, and a
generous first aid kit. Fortunately, the American Red Cross provides a complete list of what to include in an emergency kit; visit http://www.redcross.org/prepare/
The property management company I work for has purchased backpacks from the ARC containing the recommended basic necessities, along with other items to help during an emergency. I store one for myself and a few extras for others near an easily accessible doorway. Never hide your emergency backpack in a closet; when you need that kit, you’ll need it fast. A doorway will also offer added protection if the world crashes down around you.
Remember: when an emergency strikes, as resident managers, we need to think quickly. Simply following instructions is not enough if we are not prepared and without a plan. And while your tenants will naturally help each other, try not to look too hard for heroes—it is our responsibility as resident managers to make sure we and our tenants are prepared to take care of ourselves.
“Theodore” is a resident manager with some two decades of experience and has been a professional writer and editor for much longer than that.