Op-ed: Why undergrounding utilities is not the answer to earthquake and firestorm safety

With the anniversaries of the Loma Prieta earthquake and the Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm occurring in the middle of a “hot” election, there’s been much discussion about safety in the hills. Councilwoman Susan Wengraf has made this a key issue in her bid for re-election to the Council for District 6, by promising to “underground all utilities in the city” — a promise that is not only not impractical but dangerous because it leads the city away from solutions that will actually save lives.

I agree that keeping people as safe as possible should be our highest priority. We’ve already suffered two major wildfire events. The first was on Sept. 17, 1923, when a fire destroyed 584 homes as it burned through North Berkeley, from Tilden Park to the edge of downtown at Shattuck and University, stopping only because the direction of the wind changed. The second was on Oct. 20, 1991, when a firestorm burned through the Oakland hills and Southeast Berkeley destroying 3,280 housing units, killing 25 people, injuring 150 others, and resulting in a $1.5 billion economic loss.

On Oct. 17, 1989, a magnitude-6.9 earthquake on the San Andreas Fault caused major damage to San Francisco, Oakland and the Bay Bridge. Every expert agrees that the northern portion of the Hayward Fault, which runs directly through eastern Berkeley, is overdue for a quake of that same magnitude or higher, potentially resulting in even greater loss of life and property.

The city of Berkeley does not have a strong plan to meet these problems. There is an Emergency Access and Evacuation Network map on the city’s website which identifies just one east-west evacuation route for the northern parts of the hills, and one partial evacuation route for the large land area south of Marin Avenue.

The advice given on the website is for residents to pack their cars with belonging and drive out, or use the existing pathway system to escape. However, even in the unlikely event that residents could easily escape the area, there is no place for them to go to.

Undergrounding utilities is a laudable goal — no-one disagrees with that. Almost everyone would like to see those ugly wires disappear, making the whole city look better and generally raising property values.

However, as a practical response to making residents safer in a firestorm or earthquake, undergrounding is far down on the list of solutions for two very important reasons as pointed out in a recent, city-funded study known as the Harris Report.

Those reasons are:

  • It will take five to 10 years just to produce an undergrounding plan.
  • The plan will cost $135 million to underground only 20% of the area (streets that are collectors and arterials, leaving vast areas of neighborhood streets which don’t fall into those categories untouched).
  • Even within the underground districts of arterial and collector streets, property owners will have to pay out of their own pocket thousands of dollars in costs to bring the lines from street to their property, and there will always be some homeowners who simply cannot afford these mandatory costs, even if those costs are spread out over years added to their property taxes.

It is clear that undergrounding of utilities throughout the city will take untold years to complete and we can’t wait that long. Nor can we afford to spend valuable time and resources on something that takes away from a serious effort to save lives and recover from a disaster faster.

Here is my 10-point proposal for how to approach this issue:

  1. To lead the effort, re-establish the 1995 Seismic Technical Advisory Panel that at its inception included professors Vitelmo Bertero, James Kelly and Mary Comerio who advised the city on various specific building and planning seismic matters. This resulted in the city being recognized by FEMA in 1998 as the Project Model Community of the Year and by the Western States Seismic Safety Council Award for Overall Excellence, but has since been allowed to disappear.
  2. Open negotiations with the PUC and PG&E to upgrade utility-owned technology which will automatically significantly shorten the time when wires are live after a disaster event. Include requiring that wires and poles within and around existing earthquake and landslide zones be upgraded to resist collapse as feasible.
  3. Identify funds such as FEMA grants to offer low-interest loans to pay for retrofitting soft-story buildings or replacing roofs with flame-resistant materials, or combining or multiplying PG&E 20A funds through the existing trading program to use as loans for some undergrounding projects where there is a proven high risk of life safety.
  4. Work with the School District to designate already seismically safe school buildings as evacuation sites, especially Cragmont Elementary School which received a FEMA grant for just this purpose, but which has been allowed to cease that function.
  5. Identify and label more evacuation routes with definite end points for all parts of the city.
  6. Offer free city inspections of retrofits already installed as standards have changed over the years. Inspections would be focused only on retrofits, so that the property owners would not be caught in what might simply be cosmetic issues. Offer free clinics for groups of people who haven’t yet done a retrofit, advising on how to proceed and making the process as simple as possible.
  7. Strengthen the network of Neighborhood Disaster and Watch Groups, by combining them and ensuring they meet at least two times annually with Police and Fire Department representatives, regarding, but not limited to such matters as vegetation management, crime prevention, ensuring each household has an adequate food and water supply and an evacuation plan.
  8. Lengthen the time from three days to one week, that each household should stockpile supplies to support them in an emergency.
  9. Re-open the program to reduce the cost of automatic shut-off gas valves and their installation to combined Disaster and Watch Groups.
  10. Address the issue of live wires falling in and around individual homes that have installed solar. The panels continue to generate electricity but they have been disconnected from the grid and present a hazard.

It is past time for this important work to be put off.

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Isabelle Gaston is a candidate for Berkeley City Council representing District 6 and President of the Northeast Berkeley Association.