I was just putting the finishing touches on the September President’s message on Saturday, August 23rd. In that message, I touched on topics such as getting ready to dive into a busy fall agenda, the SEAOC Convention, and the importance of committee work. However, one day and one earthquake later, I realized that message needed to be changed.
At 3:20am on August 24, 2014, a 6.1 magnitude earthquake occurred near American Canyon along the West Napa fault line at a depth of 6.6 miles. The earthquake was felt strongly throughout the San Francisco Bay Area region. It was the largest earthquake to occur in the San Francisco Bay Area since the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake in October 1989 and larger than the 5.2 magnitude earthquake of September 2000 in Napa County.
The initial hours following the earthquake was about first response to all emergencies, including fires, injuries, or broken water and/or gas lines. Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa addressed approximately 200 quake-related injuries, but there have been no reported fatalities. Social media was buzzing with people throughout the Bay Area sharing their experiences on what they felt during the earthquake.
It is events like this that remind us of the ever-present seismic risks in the Bay Area and the importance of the structural engineer in the design and construction of our built environment. The media of course focused on the most badly damaged structures, but there are thousands of other structures that will need to be inspected and evaluated in the coming weeks ahead, and there are no better qualified professionals to perform them than structural engineers. In the months and even years ahead, members of SEAONC will have an impact in the Napa region assisting the local community with repairing and retrofitting existing buildings. It will be an opportunity for us to further educate the community on having seismic-resistant buildings, as well as the importance of bracing nonstructural components.
I had some thoughts at the end of the first day following the earthquake. However, the first thought revolved around a different earthquake. Just three weeks earlier, a 6.5 magnitude earthquake struck an impoverished region of China’s Yunnan province. The numbers were quite staggering: 400 dead, 1800 injuries, 12,000 homes collapsed. The disparity between these numbers and the initial numbers from the Napa earthquake demonstrate the impact structural engineers have had on the built environment in California through the use and enforcement of modern seismic codes and standards over the past forty years.
Was the Napa event the major earthquake in a densely urban population we are preparing for? No. Was there major structural damage in this earthquake? Yes. Could the casualties have been higher if the earthquake occurred at a different time of day? Absolutely. Will more damage be uncovered as more inspections are performed? Undoubtedly. However, in considering the built environment as a whole, we have much to take pride in. Not in the damage shown in the media coverage, but the structural collapses we prevented from happening in the first place.
That being said, structural engineers and SEAONC cannot stop advocating seismic safety. Actions by structural engineers following the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes led to the development of performance-based engineering methodologies and new lateral-force-resisting systems. We need to continue to push the boundaries of structural engineering with even more bold ideas, such as the implementation of the first seismic rating system.
My last thought revolved around publicity and communication. With the earthquake fresh in everyone’s mind and many using social media to communicate feelings, thoughts, and experiences, I realize that we need to be part of that conversation as well. In addition to posting our observations and thoughts on social media sites, we need to be talking about what we do not only with clients, but with friends, neighbors, teachers, parents, and anyone else within our realm of influence. The opportunity to speak about what structural engineers stand for always exists. We should not need an earthquake to motivate us to take action.
Darrick B. Hom, SE