The Science of Sustainability

Faulty Civic Awareness with the Hayward Fault

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Geologists visiting Hayward in their colorful urban field dress pay homage to its namesake fault, which has been steadily offsetting this curb since 1971. Photos by Andrew Alden

The East Bay is marked by the Hayward fault, stretching from Point Pinole south through Fremont. It's considered the most dangerous earthquake fault in northern California, capable of a quake causing a $100 billion disaster. Geologists are conflicted as they approach the Hayward fault, with reverence for its capacity for damage but enthusiasm for its textbook display of tectonic features. City websites approach it with the terrified response of the proverbial ostrich.

Hayward gave its name to the fault thanks to the original "great San Francisco earthquake" of 1868, but you wouldn't know it from the city's website. Indeed, most of the cities on the fault, north or south, don't admit that they're even near it except in passing, in old background documents. Pinole, San Pablo, Richmond, El Cerrito—nowhere on their websites do these cities show their residents where the fault is. Berkeley's website has a useful map, but I can't tell you how to find it except through a brute-force search. Oakland, which sits on more miles of the fault than any other East Bay city, has almost nothing even in its Public Safety Portal. San Leandro has nothing. Hayward presents a low-grade map of the fault and a lot of good offsite links, but only a dedicated searcher can find them. And searching Fremont's website turns up nothing.

I have to call this situation a miserable failure. Off the top of my head, I checked Biloxi, Mississippi, a river town in hurricane country. There's a big tab, "Storm & Flood Preparedness," high on the city website's home page. But East Bay cities treat earthquake as something nebulous in the environment that, like the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, might affect them as distant bystanders.

So who's helping our East Bay cities raise public awareness?

I didn't start writing this piece intending to blow my own horn, but my Oakland Geology blog has a geologic map of the city and many posts about the fault. It seems like—no, it is the least I can do. I actually set out to talk about Fremont, where a Hayward Fault Walk and Tour takes place this summer on July 14 and August 11. The city is involved with that exercise, although the prime movers are the nonprofit Math/Science Nucleus and the federal U.S. Geological Survey, which has extensive resources on the Hayward fault. The city of Fremont could hardly avoid involvement, because its first city building was set directly upon the fault trace in 1962 and is being slowly wrenched apart. (Geologist Joyce Blueford of Math/Science Nucleus provided this background document to the Tri-City Voice.)

But consider the case of San Francisco, which owes a core aspect of its reputation to the great quake of 1906. What made San Francisco "The City That Knows How" was its indomitable response to the quake. San Francisco owns its fault. I think that Hayward could adopt some of that same attitude. It has a splendid fault museum already: its old City Hall, built in 1930 upon the Hayward fault.

Just peek in the windows of this beautiful shell to see the effects of aseismic creep, the steady, millimeters-per-year motion found along much of the fault.

And its new City Hall building, next to the BART station, is an example of state-of-the-art seismic design, sturdy and flexible enough to remain operational after the Hayward fault's Big One.

And that Big One will happen again, and life will resume. Like New York after 9/11, like New Orleans after Katrina, the cities of the East Bay will earn new reputations as they endure, revive and prevail. We can think and plan ahead for this trial-by-nature. It starts with admitting the obvious: this is our fault.

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Category: Blog, Geology

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Andrew Alden

About the Author ()

Andrew Alden earned his geology degree at the University of New Hampshire and moved back to the Bay Area to work at the U.S. Geological Survey for six years. He has written on geology for About.com since its founding in 1997. In 2007, he started the Oakland Geology blog, which won recognition as "Best of the East Bay" from the East Bay Express in 2010. In writing about geology in the Bay Area and surroundings, he hopes to share some of the useful and pleasurable insights that geologists give us—not just facts about the deep past, but an attitude that might be called the deep present. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.