Engineer: Century-Old Pipes Bursting From Old Age Won't Survive Quake

Categories: Government
Wait! We're not ready!
You don't need to be a top-flight engineer to figure that a century-old water main that crumbled on its own over the weekend turning SoMa into a swamp would not have survived a strong earthquake. Chris Poland, however, is a top-flight engineer, and he confirmed it -- the city's Taft administration water mains will not survive the Big One. In fact, much of our "lifeline" systems -- water, sewers, roads, cables, etc. -- won't make it. The good news is, the city is aware of this and is taking steps to combat the problem.

The bad news is, that won't mean much if the Big One were to come tomorrow.

"We'll have the new Hetch Hetchy water system to get the water to our reservoirs. There's good reliability there" in terms of a quake, said Poland, the CEO and chairman of Degenkolb Engineers in the city and a 35-year veteran of building design. "But getting water from the reservoirs to our homes so we can go on with our daily lives needs to be dealt with."

Poland chairs the disaster resilience initiative and seismic mitigation task force for San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR); he and others have found that the organizations running the city's lifelines often didn't communicate with one another. Again, you don't need an engineering degree to figure out why this is a serious problem.

"A number of the lifeline providers are depending on PG&E before anything happens and PG&E is saying we've got to move people to the hotspots so we've got to have transportation," says Poland. It'd be O. Henry-like -- but instead of being arrested for vagrancy, the protagonists of this story -- San Franciscans, namely -- are expiring beneath a pile of rubble. In short, those in charge of maintaining the city's roads and bridges are relying on PG&E for power, while PG&E needs passable roads first and foremost. It's quite a predicament.

 "The most important thing is, now the city recognizes it needs to do this," notes Poland. How problems like the one above will be worked out hasn't yet been determined. But the city's "Lifelines Council" is now beginning to work on that; its first meeting was earlier this winter.

But, again, if the big one is also the soon one -- we're in trouble.

"We've done a wonderful job over the past 100 years as structural engineers and earthquake professionals to make the community safe," says Poland. "Most people will get out of their buildings and go someplace else. But at the end of 72 hours when it comes time to start the recovery process, we are unprepared."

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