Earthquake scientists get ready for the Big One

If you liked the 1906 San Francisco and 1989 Loma Prieta quakes, you’ll love the Hayward shaker.

That’s according to local earthquake experts, many of whom happen to be Jewish (as they say, “Who knew?”).

That “Big One” hasn’t happened yet, but when the Hayward fault finally does snap, the entire East Bay from Hayward to the Berkeley Hills will rock and roll like never before. It has the potential to be one of the most destructive temblors in Bay Area history.

Are we ready?

Susan Tubbesing, executive director of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, thinks so.

“We’re much more ready than probably any other part of the country,” she says. “We have very good building codes today, built to withstand quake forces. Caltrans has done a great deal of work to strengthen highways and bridges, but there’s more to do.”

Tubbesing is one of many Jews in the Bay Area involved in earthquake science, preparedness and engineering. Others include structural engineers David Friedman and Ephraim Hirsch, regional director of state emergency services Rich Eisner, seismologists David Schwartz and Ross Stein, and geologist Mel Zucker.

Tubbesing’s institute is a multidisciplinary professional association of scientists and emergency management officials that’s been around since 1949.

Currently, Tubbesing is a key organizer of the 100th Anniversary Earthquake Conference, set for April 17 to 21 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. The event brings together 2,500 professionals from emergency management, earth science, engineering and risk management to share information and attend workshops.

“There’s never been an earthquake conference as big as this one,” she says. “San Francisco is such a favorite city to so many people, and the 1906 quake has captured the imagination of people all over the world.”

One of the attendees will be David Friedman, president of Forell/Elsesser Engineers and a structural engineer for the past 26 years. “We live with natural hazards all the time,” he says, “but natural disasters are avoidable. The biggest message of this centennial is that education and preparedness is what it’s all about.”

Tubbesing thinks there is no way to over-prepare for the next big one. Of the next Hayward or San Andreas quakes, she adds, “There are projected to be hundreds of thousands of people who will need interim shelter. Thousands of roads will be out of commission. We’re afraid waterlines would break and we’re terribly afraid of a firestorm. People need to take it seriously and cities need to start planning for this now.”

As a structural engineer, Friedman is reasonably confident the region has its act together. “Buildings today will hang together quite well,” he says. “We’ve come a long way in terms of addressing the issues of bad buildings, we are more prepared in terms of emergency plans and we know more about protecting lifelines. Is there more we can do? Absolutely.”

For the Jewish community, Friedman’s company served as the earthquake structural engineers for the new Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, and is consulting on the new wing of the Jewish Home. Friedman also serves on the board of the Home.

Meanwhile, as residents of the Bay Area go about their lives, Mother Nature bides her time. Someday she will let it rip, and when that day comes, the rest of us can only hope that Friedman, Tubbesing and their colleagues have done their jobs well.

And as for the concentration of Jews in the fields of earthquake science and engineering, Friedman doesn’t think it means all that much. “There are a lot of very talented structural engineers who are Jews,” he says, “but I’m not sure it’s a calling in the Torah.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.