Quake could hit Silicon Valley at any moment, but they’re far from ready
Experts warn that tech firms need a collective look at emergency planning, or risk a catastrophe
It’s just gone 10.18am on Thursday, October 18, and employees across Silicon Valley are cowering under their desks. This is a California-wide drill, but it’s also a sobering reminder that the earth underneath some of the world’s most famous and valuable tech companies could shift at any moment.
The US Geological Survey says there is a 72% probability of one or more at least 6.7-magnitude earthquakes striking the San Francisco Bay Region between 2014 and 2043, on one of four fault lines that run through the area. One scenario, which imagines a 7.0 quake on the Hayward Fault striking the city of Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, would cause immediate damage costing more than $82bn and displace 411,000 people. But a catastrophic earthquake could have implications well beyond an immediate hit to the smooth running of Silicon Valley.
The tech companies based here, which include Facebook, Google and Apple, are a source of immense wealth to the US economy. Between 2012 and 2016, California accounted for a quarter of the growth in the US gross domestic product, and it provides a seventh of overall GDP.
Robert Muir-Wood, head of research at catastrophe modelling company RMS, says the tech industry was “naive” about the impact. The last serious earthquake to affect the Bay Area occurred in 1989, when the Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco with Oakland partly collapsed and $6bn in property damage was caused. “People are not as prepared for this as they should be,” he says. Part of the problem, he believes, is a lack of transparency about emergency planning.
Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon were all asked about their contingency plans for this article, but none shared any details on the record. “Maybe they will say they have plans to combat the disruption, but I’ve never seen them,” says Muir-Wood. “They don’t talk about them in public. They’re not disclosed, and they’re all going to share very similar problems to each other. It’s a collective problem, and it really requires some collective thinking as to how they’re going to plan for it.”
While the tech giants themselves are likely to have secured their buildings and have risk assessments and back-up plans, the companies that support them with services like catering, and the thousands of start-ups, which are essential to the future of Silicon Valley, are at risk. Some are based in central San Francisco, much of which is built on reclaimed land and at risk of liquefaction, which could cause buildings to tilt and become unsafe.
A pertinent recent case study is the series of earthquakes that hit Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2010 and 2011, leaving parts of the central business district closed for more than a year. “[The same] in San Francisco [and] that would be a problem,” says Muir-Wood.
One company that would speak in detail about its emergency plans was Cisco, one of the longest-established Silicon Valley tech giants. The San Jose-based company has several 12m shipping containers with medical and sanitation supplies, bedding and food to allow staff to stay on-site in the event of a disaster, a team of trained employee volunteers who would lead the immediate response, back-up electricity generators and a tech ops team that could help restore damaged communications in the region. Bob Beecher, the company’s emergency preparedness and response co-ordinator, said it also had contingency plans with suppliers so it could get hold of large amounts of necessities such as drinking water.
“The thing about disaster planning is that it’s an ever-evolving, living document; we’re always finding new things, finding new best practices, networking with other people,” says Beecher. “If you have a plan that is sitting on the shelf gathering dust, you don’t have a plan.”
Christina Curry, of the California governor’s office of emergency services, said the office’s own disaster planning had been shared with all the big tech companies. They “want to help”, she says. “They have a lot of resources that they can lend to the first responders and help out.”
Cisco also runs regular events to educate employees about the importance of making sure they have an evacuation plan and that their houses are earthquake-proof. Thousands of homes are considered vulnerable to collapse, with properties built before 1979 particularly at risk, since they have small basements or crawl spaces below them, meaning the structure is less likely to withstand shaking.
The California Earthquake Authority recently announced a new $6m programme to help more homeowners improve their foundations. Launching the project, Democratic state senator Nancy Skinner warned that tech employees were going home to properties that would not withstand a serious earthquake on the Hayward fault. Keith Knudsen, the deputy director of the earthquake science centre at the US Geological Survey, said: “There will be significant challenges after we have a big Bay Area earthquake, and we haven’t really been tested.  wasn’t really a Bay Area earthquake. It was way down in Santa Cruz. So when we are struck here in the core of the Bay Area, it’s going to be a mess.”
The high turnover of people in the Silicon Valley economy is a particular problems, he says. “There are a lot of people who didn’t go through school where you learn to drop, cover and hold on. So people like me get tired of doing these public events, but then you realise that the churn in the population, or the turnover, is really large. So there are a lot of people from elsewhere who don’t know anything about earthquakes.”
The population of the area has ballooned in recent years, as people move to follow their dreams of start-up glory and riches. When the last serious earthquake hit, in 1989, there were about 6 million people in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2018, the region’s population was estimated to have grown to 7.7 million. Another seismic event could irrevocably damage the industry since people are forced to leave the area to look for housing elsewhere.
“It’ll be a big impact and there’ll be lots of people who, just like after [Hurricane] Katrina and other disasters, have no place to live, they can’t afford to be here, they go somewhere else and never return.”
Muir-Wood agrees. “There’ll definitely be a housing problem. A lot of people don’t have earthquake insurance – it’s taken by around 20% of homeowners in the bay area, which means 80% don’t have it. For anybody who’s got a large mortgage, if the value of their property is reduced by the earthquake, and they’ve got negative equity, they’re going to walk.”
The knock-on effect on the US economy is impossible to predict, he adds, but it could be significant. “Clearly it would be impactful, but the degree to which the tech companies have got facilities already identified, or back-up capabilities, you would need to know what their plans are as to what impact it would have upon their economic contribution,” he said.
“Is it potentially recession-causing? I wouldn’t know. [On] the news broadcast of a 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Silicon Valley, a lot of stocks would lose value.”
– © The Daily Telegraph