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A study finds that a major earthquake in California would damage cellular service and communications

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An earthquake warning application on a mobile phone in Los Angeles. A new USGS study indicates that California’s communications system is at high risk from a severe earthquake. (Richard Vogel/The Associated Press)

A major earthquake in California is likely to disrupt many communications services for days or weeks, including the vast majority of cell phones in areas closest to the epicenter, according to a landmark new analysis by the US Geological Survey.

The widespread disruption will put the public’s access to 911 workers at risk and lead to delays in reporting fires and requests for medical help.

Cell towers are subject to constant power outages. The USGS said the same applies to cellular equipment in power poles and buildings that are at risk of severe vibration, liquefaction and fire. California’s cell phone networks are notorious for their unreliability during blackouts that occur during life-threatening emergencies, such as the wildfires in 2019, which cut off large swathes of the San Francisco Bay Area from cellular service for extended periods.

In a grim estimation of the challenges, a magnitude 7 earthquake that struck the Hayward Bay region could leave Alameda County – the hardest-hit region – able to provide just 7% of demand for voice and data service after the earthquake. This is identical to the failure of communications service in New York City after the September 11, 2001 attacks, when 93% of mobile phone calls failed.

The findings of the USGS study are one of several vulnerabilities revealed by the government agency, which formally presented its findings at a press conference Thursday.

The report consists of about 780 pages, adding to the nearly 600 pages of findings released since 2018 on the so-called HayWired scenario. The report is the third volume in a series of reports that have been researched over six years and focused on future earthquakes on the Hayward Fault. The final volume was written by 20 lead authors and 80 contributors.

Dubbed the “tectonic time bomb,” the Hayward fault is a terrifying scenario as it passes through densely populated areas with old buildings, including just below the East Bay cities of Oakland, Berkeley, Hayward and Fremont.

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The Hayward Fault is one of California’s fastest moving faults and, on average, produces a major earthquake once every 150 to 160 years, granting or taking seven or eight decades.

It has been 153 years since the last major earthquake – a magnitude 6.8 – caused by the Hayward Fault. The US Geological Survey estimates that a magnitude 7 earthquake today on this fault could result in at least 800 deaths. Hundreds more could die from a fire after the earthquake, making this the deadliest scenario in California since the Great 1906 earthquake that devastated much of San Francisco.

In this hypothetical seismic scenario, electricity services might be out for weeks, while gas and water services might be out for months. The USGS estimates that an East Bay resident can be without water from six weeks to six months, and that interruptions to the water supply can hamper firefighting efforts.

Hayward fault map

Transportation systems may be down for years.

The USGS report said the area’s primary commuter rail system, BART, could be severely damaged or collapsed at Hayward Train Yard, while train stations in Oakland, Hayward and San Leandro could be so badly damaged that it could take a year to repair Three years. The report said the USGS’ simulation of the type of ground shaking that could occur was much worse than what BART designed, meaning that even some of the seismically modified facilities at the Hayward train yard could be destroyed.

The report said that while BART’s earthquake safety program is designed to keep passengers alive during an earthquake, some parts of the system – including parts of East Bay – are not equipped to keep the transit service running after a severe earthquake.

The USGS has also identified more than 50 bridges at high risk of damage and collapse, and has indicated that it could take three to ten months to repair them. Many are along Interstate 880, a major artery connecting Oakland to San Jose. Other highways at risk include Interstate 680 between Fremont and Pleasanton and Interstate 580 between Oakland and Pleasanton.

With so many highways that could be damaged, the report said, “emergency response, evacuation and debris removal will be disrupted and recovery… may take longer than anticipated.” The destruction on East Bay highways can be so bad, it might be easiest to escape by heading over the bay to the west, toward San Francisco and San Mateo County.

The damage can turn some areas into ghost towns, a phenomenon that occurred in parts of Los Angeles after the 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake in 1994.

Neighborhoods across East Bay, such as those in Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, Alameda, San Leandro, Hayward, Castro Valley, Union City and Pleasanton, are at risk of more than 20% of their buildings experiencing severe damage or destruction. This is a potential tipping point where people may collectively decide to leave their homes or workplaces – even if they are still structurally sound – because their neighborhoods are no longer functioning normally.

A similar effect occurred in the aftermath of the 6.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Napa in 2014. Some of the modernized businesses remained in place but were not immediately reopened because adjacent structures that had not been retrofitted were so badly damaged that potential aftershocks could send them off. To safe structures from earthquakes.

The US Geological Survey said that a hypothetical earthquake on the Hayward Fault puts between 720,000 and 1.45 million residents at risk of being displaced from their homes.

Old buildings are big risks. In places like Oakland, Berkeley, Hayward and Alameda, there are many soft-storied apartment buildings, with flimsy first floors containing parking lots that could collapse in an earthquake, as well as old, vulnerable apartment buildings and brittle concrete.

While Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco have passed mandatory retrofit laws for soft-story apartment buildings — as have cities such as Los Angeles, Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Pasadena, and Culver City in Southern California — many others have not.

Unless more is done to retrofit these apartment buildings, whose rent is generally lower than newer buildings, there could be a significant deterioration in the supply of affordable housing if these structures are badly damaged or destroyed in an earthquake.

California is expected to suffer $74 billion in cumulative property damage, with 1 million residential buildings and 39,000 non-residential buildings destroyed, in the Great Hayward Earthquake. Losses from business interruption may mostly be caused by property damage, but are exacerbated by interruptions in water supply, electricity, and communications.

There could be a wave of mortgage defaults, deteriorating mental health and continued property damage, which could be exacerbated by years of large aftershocks that could strike far from wrong, including under the Silicon Valley cities of Palo Alto, Cupertino and Sunnyvale.

Economic losses could send the Gulf region into a recession for five to 10 years. Close to half a million jobs could be lost, and there would be an 8% drop in gross regional product compared to projected growth in the region. It may take longer to recover if there is a shortage of workers, rising construction costs and decisions by large employers to grow jobs outside the region.

USGS officials warned in the hardest-hit areas of the East Bay, where 40% of businesses could see operations disrupted “due to extensive or complete building damage in central Alameda County and western Contra Costa County.”

There are many things that can be done to improve California’s resilience in the face of a major earthquake.

Old single-family homes and apartment buildings need seismic reinforcement; The report suggested that do infrastructure, such as systems that send water, electricity, fuel and communications to homes and businesses. More new housing, built to modern-day standards, needs to be made available before the shaking begins, and governments need to plan for a long-term recovery with a plan to fund it.

Even simple strategies can be of great help. Telling the public to reduce voice calls and rely on text messages will help maintain the capacity of the 911 system. Telephone companies can limit the number of phone calls a person can initiate per hour.

Communication systems can be made more reliable if permanent backup power is available, either with batteries that last less than a day, along with generators that can run for three days before needing to refuel.

The majority of the US population lives in homes that use only wireless, said David Witkosky, co-author of the USGS report. Nationwide, 57% of people no longer have wired phones in their homes; This number exceeds 76% among people in their late twenties and early thirties.

Newer digital landline services, such as those that receive their connection through Internet service such as Spectrum, Cox, and Comcast, as well as through AT&T’s U-Verse, are relatively less flexible because they require backup power to keep phone services running during a power outage.

Witkowski said that traditional, copper-based, no-electricity traditional analog land phone service — still provided by companies like AT&T and Frontier — may become relatively more flexible as it receives power from batteries in the phone network.

He said that during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, some people in the Bay area reported that they were still able to make calls to their nearest neighbors, but not people across the region or the rest of the country.

Wired telephone networks can still experience overload, Witkosky said, “but that’s less likely now because the links between wired telephone switches are high-bandwidth data links.” “Of course, even a high-bandwidth link can be burdened with enough traffic.”

Long-term power outages can also frustrate copper landline service. During the 2019 wildfires, some residents reported losing AT&T landline service in the first 24 hours after the lights went out.

If all commonly used telephone systems were to be disabled, the only alternatives might be satellite phone service or amateur radio operators, as was required in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

California has made great strides in improving earthquake safety; $80 billion has been spent since 1989 in the Bay Area alone on earthquake improvements, including $20 million each on bridge and highway upgrades; $19 billion in hospital retrofits; and $6 billion on water supply systems.

But this money was not spent evenly. There has been four times the investment in earthquake safety in San Francisco on a per capita basis than in East Bay, according to Ann Wynne, lead coordinator of the USGS report.

Los Angeles has made some improvements in recent years. In 2015, Los Angeles passed an ambitious seismic safety effort that required retrofitting of soft-storied apartments and fragile concrete buildings. Of the more than 12,500 potentially vulnerable soft-storied buildings in the city, nearly 7,000 have been retrofitted.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Energy has also installed more earthquake-resistant mains and mainline tubes in recent years, intended to keep hospitals and other critical sites operating after an earthquake.

But there are still weaknesses. Most cities in California, including Los Angeles, have not ordered retrofits to potentially vulnerable steel buildings, which Santa Monica and West Hollywood have done. A 2008 USGS study said that it is plausible that five unequipped steel buildings around southern California would have collapsed in a hypothetical 7.8-magnitude earthquake on the San Andreas Fault.

Wayne said it would be important for people to think of preparedness not only as making one’s home or business earthquake-ready, but also in the surrounding community.

After all, what’s the point of having a home or business still standing, but everyone else in the neighborhood is in disrepair?

“If I was the only person in my entire neighborhood, that neighborhood wouldn’t really help,” Wayne said. “It wouldn’t really help me.”

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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