Archive for the ‘oakland hazards’ Category

Did you see it?

11 June 2012

Oakland is peppered with landslides, whether up in the hills like this little earthflow off Grizzly Peak Boulevard or down in the flats.

landslide

Now the U.S. Geological Survey wants to collect them all, the same way it does with earthquakes. By analogy with its “Did you feel it?” earthquake reporting site, the Survey’s Landslide Hazards Program has launched a “Did you see it?” site.

And now I have submitted this landslide to the DYSI page.

Heritage in a dynamic place

10 February 2012

I gave my talk last night to the Oakland Heritage Alliance and I think it turned out well. I tried to talk about our geology not on its own terms, but weighted toward its relevance in Oakland’s general civic life. One of my slides was this lovely digital elevation model that makes the Hayward fault obvious. Click to see the whole thing. Sadly, I can’t recall exactly where I got it.

oakland DEM

Here are my concluding remarks from the talk.

Oakland is situated in an area that falls down every century or so. Today, a repeat of the 1868 earthquake would erase large areas of our city. I don’t see how we can prevent that. How can we hang on to our history in the face of nature? And how can we hang on to our history in the face of human nature? By that I refer to well-known tendencies in cities that are traumatized. Citizens have a strong, almost overwhelming urge to return to normal, and that drive is amplified in their leaders.

We have the example of San Francisco after 1906, which underwent a furious rebuilding and whose leaders had no tolerance for delay. San Francisco was the leading city of the West, and the stakes were very high. Democracy was short-circuited for a time. The development-driven city leaders, led by “mover and shaker” James Phelan, were prepared to obliterate Chinatown before the Asian-American community rallied to save it. There was no heritage community at the time, and who knows how it would have fared had there been one.

After our earthquake—and it’s coming—Oakland will still have all the geographical gifts that I showed you at the start of my talk. We can assume that the seaport and airport and rail lines and highways will be rebuilt as soon as possible. The stakes will again be very high. There will be little conflict with the heritage community over any of that. The hard part will begin once the emergency ends.

Earthquakes are part of our geography. These days we like to talk about sustainable living: in tornado country, for instance, that means everyone has a storm cellar. What does it mean in Oakland? Some of our most beautiful neighborhoods lie along the fault, and they probably will not be reoccupied once destroyed. The city that arises after the next Big One will be very different in some ways.

I think I can foresee a more sustainable Oakland in which more people will live in well designed multi-family buildings and recreate in a long greenbelt where route 13 runs today. On the other hand, much will endure. City Hall should survive thanks to its retrofit after 1989. Landmarks like Tech High, the Camron-Stanford House, Peralta Hacienda, and Dunsmuir will be restored if they survive the tumult. I know that the Oakland Heritage Alliance will be there, doing its utmost to save what can be saved. In the end, much depends on the citizenry at large: the values they hold most strongly, the values we are teaching them today, will be those that prevail.

Oakland Memorial Park (earthquake park)

23 December 2011

In the Cypress district of West Oakland is a memorial park about the 1989 earthquake, which did the majority of its killing here. The sculpture at the corner of 14th Street and Mandela Parkway represents the ladders that local residents quickly raised against the wreckage of the collapsed freeway that once ran through here.

earthquake park oakland

Looking at the sculpture toward the hills, you also notice ring-shaped berms invoking the seismic waves that rippled north through the site from the epicenter in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

earthquake park oakland

Here’s a view from the sidewalk looking the other way. The park takes up an L-shaped portion of the block, the rest of which is occupied by a fire station.

earthquake park oakland

The floor of the sculpture pad briefly describes the scene here on 17 October 1989. The edge of the park is a wall with “15 seconds” in big steel letters on it. To the right is an interpretive sign.

earthquake park oakland

This is a remarkable place that I had no inkling was here until I took a walk on Mandela Parkway yesterday. It occurs to me that there must be other memorials to the 1989 quake around the bay.

The fire zone

20 October 2011

oakland hills fire

I was across the bay on October 19, 1991, doing a freelance job at some client whose name I forget. It was a hot day, and I saw a tall plume of smoke in the Oakland hills. The fire people worked on it, and that evening as I headed back across the bay it seemed to be over. But the following day, 20 years ago today, an ember got loose and took out a huge swath of the hills with some three thousand homes on it. It was a terrifying day, like something out of Lord of the Rings. Thick smoke covered the whole sky, and the east wind wouldn’t let up. The city was at nature’s mercy until the winds turned, late in the afternoon. For years afterward we would find pieces of charred wood in our garden that had dropped from the sky that day.

Apparently the same thing had happened in 1970. Historians reminded us that it happened in 1923, too. Before that the native inhabitants made a practice of torching the hills often to keep the land clear. But in the aftermath of 1991 the hills were hastily repopulated and reforested by residents whose driving urge was to make the pain stop. They had the eager help of insurance companies, placing their bets on the enduring value of view lots.

Today these fireprone hills are platted out for houses forever, even the impossible slopes of Charing Cross Road. Now the hills are in an unsustainable cycle of building expensive homes cheek by jowl on inadequate streets, growing inertia as fuel builds up and preparations lapse, one dire day of conflagration, and heedless rebuilding. The earthquake cycle is just a slower version of this fire cycle. If madness is doing the same things in the face of futility, then Oakland has gone mad. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Hayes Creek – Dracena Park walk (#34)

10 August 2011

Last week I bought a copy of Secret Stairs East Bay, by Charles Fleming, and met the author in person at a book event at the Solano Street branch of Pegasus. As I leafed through the book and heard the author, it was clear that while the walks offer lots of insight into Oakland’s history and culture, the geologic stories to be seen on these walks were yet to be told. I thought, Well, I can try that.

Sunday my wife and I took one of the walks, number 34, to Dracena Park (featured here before) in Piedmont. It begins at Chapel of the Chimes on Piedmont Avenue and takes you on a pathway across the valley of upper Glen Echo Creek (which I’ve called Mountain View Valley). Here’s the view back toward the Chapel from the other end.

glen echo creek valley

The stream was culverted long ago, but on the 1897 topo map it’s shown as Hayes Creek. Today it’s Glen Echo Creek. The valley floor is so flat because it was graded and planted to houses. But in my unprofessional opinion, its flood hazard today is as low as anywhere.

Onward! The book directs us to the head of this little gorge, part of Pleasant Valley Creek’s watershed, and thence to the old quarry pit now known as Dracena Park.

pleasant valley creek

You should always suspect humans as a land-shaping agent in Oakland, and indeed Walter Blair, who ran the quarry and before that a dairy at this site, may have had a flume or a transport line of some sort here. But its original form appears to be intact.

We turn into the park proper, and glorious bedrock appears—Franciscan sandstone, ready-fractured for its purpose.

sandstone

Go ahead and inspect the stuff; no hammer is needed (and none allowed anyway) when it crumbles so readily. Fracturing and tectonic movements—and surely some seismic work, like a bartender’s cocktail shaker—has rubbed and even polished parts of the stone.

hand specimen

Fleming says that the stone went into the homes of Oakland, but that is not true. This is not dimension stone by any means, but rather the usual quarry of Bay Area stone hunters in general: crushed stone and aggregate for roadbeds, underlayments and concrete mixes.

What was once a noisy scene of dynamite and dust is now a green bowl punctuated by the cries of children.

dracena bowl

The walls of the park are pretty well greened over, but watch out anyway: bedrock exposures are not forever. Maybe in a marble or granite quarry, where solid rock is sawed away in blocks, but here rockfall is a continuing potential hazard.

rockfall

These are not decorative boulders emplaced by landscape designers, but fallen rock. And that ivy-covered fence at the left? It’s really a safety measure to keep landslides away from picnickers. Here’s the whole thing.

slide guard

Dracena Park is a worthy way to remake an old quarry. But if you’re here when an earthquake strikes, get away from the walls.

The Oakland seismic landslide map

3 August 2011

A few years back, two guys at the U.S. Geological Survey did an exercise with a database that was subjected to a mathematical version of the Big One on the Hayward fault in the middle of the wet season. Their result was published as Miscellaneous Field Studies Map MF-2379, “Seismic Landslide Hazard for the Cities of Oakland and Piedmont, California.” Here’s a piece of it.

oakland landslide map

Dark-green areas are relatively fine, red areas are relatively awful, and the in-between colors are in between. Gray areas have slopes less than 5 degrees and don’t count. There’s a purple line running from top left to bottom right representing the Hayward fault; students of our street patterns may recognize the upper left corner as the intersection of 580 and 13. The lower right corner is 580 at the exit to the zoo. The left edge of the band of orange down the middle is Outlook Avenue. There are two bits of blue; the upper left one is the pond at Mills College and the lower one is the big hilltop reservoir near Toler Heights.

This map is of very little real use, because it’s just one worst-case scenario of one particular simulation, but it’s well worth studying anyway. (For real uses, like assessing your own property, you should hire a pro.) One big point is that bedrock matters. The big dark-green swath represents the solid metavolcanic rocks that are exposed in the Leona Quarry; they also underlie King Estates Open Space and part of the hill with the reservoir on top.

Oakland gets a (small) tsunami

18 March 2011

tsunamis

Oakland is fairly safe from tsunamis. Not as safe as San Ramon, but safer than most Pacific ports. First of all, we sit rather far from any dangerous subduction zones. When you track the subduction zones of the Pacific’s “ring of fire,” you get a continuous zone from Chile up to Puerto Vallarta, then jump to Cape Mendocino where the Cascadia subduction zone begins. We’re in between, and huge thrust-type quakes are not tectonically possible here.

A giant quake in Cascadia or the Aleutian Islands subduction zones would send waves down this way, possibly up to 2–3 meters high (this is the height out at sea; as they hit shore they would rise much higher). That’s where our second line of defense comes in: the Golden Gate. Anything coming through there would first be throttled by the narrow strait, then would spread out once it enters the bay. The people who prepared the Alameda County tsunami inundation maps also considered a few local extreme earthquakes that may have components of thrust. These could raise local tsunamis, but not of the horror-inducing size we saw in Japan.

I don’t want to minimize the possibilities, but the Sendai scenario cannot occur here. The harbor, however, is liable to damage even in a modest event, as we saw in Santa Cruz. Ships will bang into docks and each other; a less obvious hazard is that swift currents may pluck ships off their anchors and wash mud into our carefully dredged channels. You won’t want to go down to Jack London Square and watch if there’s a big local quake or a great event in Alaska or Cascadia. But last week would have been OK. Did anyone see the water there?


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