Op-ed: Berkeley needs to spend money to upgrade earthquake shelters

On the evening of Jan. 19, Timothy Burroughs, Berkeley’s chief resilience officer, delivered a presentation to city council on the seismic upgrade needs of the City’s seven “city care and shelter sites”.

City care and shelter sites are sites that provide “regular day-to-day services but also serve as a care and shelter service in times of catastrophic loss to the city” such as an earthquake.

According to Mr. Burroughs — none of the existing city’s shelters would be able to serve their function in the event of a major earthquake — without “significant and costly repairs.”

He went on to say that recent seismic evaluations by structural engineers had concluded that all of the seven sites are at “high risk from earthquake damage.”

Of the seven designated city care and shelter sites, one site includes the West Berkeley Service Center which was the West Berkeley Senior Center until 2011 when it was closed as a “cost-saving measure” by the then City Manager, Phil Kamlarz.

It is estimated that between 3,000-12,000 households in Berkeley will be displaced after a major earthquake. Of those, it is assumed that approximately 1,000-4,000 households will seek temporary shelter provided by the Red Cross or the City. The rest will stay with relatives, friends, or in a hotel.

Cost estimates for the seismic upgrades for Berkeley’s shelters were presented as follows:

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After staff finished, members of City Council weighed in on the issue.

Councilmember Susan Wengraf was the first to speak. She asked what shelters would be available for Berkeley citizens living east of the Hayward Fault in the event of an earthquake.

Answer: there are no city-owned shelters east of the fault. (Note: the fault runs through the center of the UC Berkeley football field, and then generally north through the hills.)

In other words, some residents could theoretically be trapped in the event of a major earthquake — unable to reach any city-owned shelters — all of which are west of the fault.

Wengraf then asked, “Do we have an agreement with the school district to use Cragmont Elementary?”

Fire Chief Dave Brannigan took the question. He said that it was “a possibility…but the last line of defense” for a variety of reasons (lack of locker rooms and showers). Residents east of the fault (many in District 6) would be evacuated to facilities in Contra Costa County, Tilden Golf Course, or the Brazil Room. The city also coordinates with UC in disaster planning so would look to them for assistance.

After Wengraf concluded her questioning of staff, Mayor Tom Bates called on Councilmember Laurie Capitelli.

“Thanks for the report. I swear being here 12 years and this is the seventh time you’ve given it to us and the numbers have probably gone from $5 million to $17 million.”

A few minutes later, Capitelli reiterated that he’d heard this information many times in the past, “I think, this has got to be the 4th, or 5th, or 6th time staff has come to us and it seems to me the message is that for the last 30 or 40 years we’ve been spending our capital assets…you’re presenting us with a conundrum. We don’t have the money.”

Why hasn’t Capitelli ever prioritized the financing of retrofits after hearing about this issue seven times? And why shoot the messenger?

After Capitelli finished, Councilmember Jesse Arreguín had a few comments.

Arreguín did not reprimand Borroughs for presenting the unpleasant facts. (It certainly is not the fault of staff that Council has not allocated the funds for these repairs.)

Arreguín called the report “sobering” and pointed out that the poor condition of the shelters is just the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to Berkeley’s infrastructure woes.

Arreguín went on to say that Berkeley needs a “comprehensive plan” to address all its infrastructure needs. This was the first time I’d ever heard a council member suggest any actual “plan” to deal with the city’s infrastructure. Such a plan is long overdue.

Bates wrapped up the discussion by echoing earlier recommendations for financing seismic upgrades through new bonds.

Bates asked staff to come back with details on the city’s bonding capacity on February 9th so that the issue could be part of a community survey in March with the intent of putting a bond measure on November’s ballot. (Note: the survey will cost taxpayers $29,000.)

The mayor then wondered aloud whether residents would have the “appetite to spend more money” and concluded, “I don’t know how else we’re going to do it”.

After almost 14 years in office, it is unfortunate that Bates never chose to prioritize the upgrading of shelters so that they would be seismically-safe in the event of a major earthquake. His leadership would have made a difference. Dithering has resulted in at least 100% or more in increased costs.

Let’s hope the council will follow Arreguín’s suggestion and create a plan to address all of Berkeley’s crumbling infrastructure — before the Big Quake hits and our “shelters” collapse.

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Isabelle Gaston is a medical writing consultant specializing in oncology regulatory submissions to the FDA and president of NEBA, the North East Berkeley Association, a community organization for residents of electoral districts 5 and 6.