Op-ed: A response to Terry Roberts

When responding to an opinion piece, as Terry Roberts purports to do, it is often quite useful to base your response on both on the opinions expressed in the original piece and also on actually relevant personal experience. The first makes it easier to follow your response and the second, of course, is more of a courtesy offered to logical argument. Evidently Roberts considers neither standard binding.

Isabelle Gaston and Patricia Mapps did not say that utility undergrounding should not be considered when reviewing when reviewing options for investing in disaster preparedness. Indeed, they said that they had carefully reviewed the cost-effectiveness, timeliness, and feasibility of undergrounding. Then they carefully laid out their conclusions, i.e.:

  • Timeliness  Given the massive legal and political and, most importantly, funding constraints, undergrounding even a portion of just collectors and arterials in Berkeley would take at a minimum decades to complete. Extensive experience in California (Berkeley, Palas Verdes, San Francisco, San Diego, etc, etc.) has confirmed this. This is further reinforced by international experience e.g. Christchurch, New Zealand and Sydney, Australia).
  • Cost-effectiveness  Even if undergrounding were effective for seismic hardening (which it is not), its massive costs would make it the last on a list of investments for improving seismic safety. Just to cite one study on its effectiveness, the review of the disaster preparedness of Christchurch, NZ, conducted after the severe 2011 earthquake there, specifically noted that the complete undergrounding installed in Christchurch was a wasted investment. Indeed, Christchurch authorities noted that undergrounding severely impeded recovery post earthquake by (among other things), severely delaying restoration of power. Another study (Australian) rejected undergrounding as a seismic hardening strategy as completely cost-ineffective (costs vastly exceeded benefits).
  • Feasibility Mapp’s point, if I read it correctly, is that given the funding available (principally Rule 20A monies), Berkeley can complete undergrounding by approximately 2316. This assumes, contrary to experience everywhere it has been tried, that there are no legal actions to impede it.

As to Roberts’ experience fighting the Oakland firestorm, I would point out that there are much more cost-effective and feasible approaches to hardening the hill areas against firesstorms. Neither Mapps nor Gaston appeared, in my reading of their articles, opposed to investing in these approaches. Indeed, they make an important point i.e. should we spend our money on cost-effective, feasible and immediately deployable strategies or should we invest in a faddish, infeasible and ill-considered strategy.

One more point on Roberts’ reasoning on this issue. When generalizing, it is recommended that you generalize from a relevant set of facts. Specifically, firestorms have different effects on the power system than do earthquakes. In none of the recent California earthquakes —  e.g Northridge, Loma Prieta, etc. — have downed power lines posed a serious hazard.

Another claim by Roberts — i.e. that Gaston says the city has done nothing to improve public safety post Loma Prieta — is directly contradicted by Gaston’s piece. She specifically cites the huge progress in seismic safety realized by the Berkeley Seismic Technical Advisory Panel. As noted in her piece this panel received national recognition (Earthquake Engineering Research Institute and FEMA, etc.) for the innovations in earthquake policy and design it accomplished for Berkeley. Even a cursory reading of her piece could not have missed her plea to reinstate this panel now that it has been dismantled under Susan Wengraf’s oversight.

As for Robert’s review of Wengraf’s role in seismic policy, I safely say again that he has evidently failed to review the data. It was Wengraf’s neglect of seismic policy that has left us with more than 500 unreinforced masonry structures and more than 400 soft-story structures in Berkeley. It is these structures that represent a genuine threat to life in an event of an earthquake. Indeed, the city’s failure to address this terrible hazard during the entirety of Wengraf’s term is the real disaster facing us – not a failure to invest in a cosmetic but politically expedient undergrounding experiment that will never happen in our lifetimes anyway.

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Robert Krumme is a structural engineer and researcher specializing in aseismic design, founder of the award-winning Seismic Technical Advisory Panel, and former member of various Berkeley commissions, including the Public Works Commission.