Is Alameda Ready for the Big One?

Fire chief says yes, but others say the risk of a conflagration is too high.

Alameda native Ken Gutleben has been tending his hometown’s
treasures for three decades. Long before the Loma Prieta earthquake,
the 62-year-old contractor was working to retrofit the island’s stately
stock of Victorian homes. Sitting in a coffee shop on Park Street, he
knows nearly every passerby by name, and even his high school history
teacher stops to chat and get help programming a smoke alarm. In a city
that boasts on its web site of being picturesque and historic — a
place where “resplendent Victorian homes grace shade tree-lined
streets” and citizens and city employees “work together to preserve and
enhance the quality of life Alamedans have enjoyed for more than a
century” — Gutleben is a living embodiment of how the city would
like to see itself. Except that he’s thinking of unloading all his
properties and leaving town.

In fact, in his estimation, it’s “crazy to stay here.”

For nearly a decade, Gutleben has been urging Alameda to expand its
firefighting resources in anticipation of the major earthquake that the
US Geological Survey assures us is coming soon to a fault line near
you. “It’s inevitable, based on the conditions that we have, that we
will end up with a firestorm,” Gutleben said. He points to two factors:
Much of Alameda is built on landfill and permeable soil, and roughly
3,000 of its homes are Victorians — the nation’s highest
percentage per capita, according to one ubiquitous claim.

“As a contractor replacing foundations for the last thirty years, I
know the vulnerability,” he said. “I know the danger.” Constructed of
soft, dry woods, Victorians lack fire stops in the framing as well as
insulation to stop drafts; they’re made even more fire-friendly by the
wood lath that holds together the plaster walls and can fuel a blaze
like kindling. Victorians tend to be “sitting on rotted bricks with an
old mud cell with a soft-story section underneath it” and many still
have old gas lighting systems that are filled with gas. Throw a major
earthquake into the mix and “the gas pipes break; they’re spewing out
gas, pilot lights are still lit … you’ve got a fire.” In addition,
permeable fill can liquefy, leaving water pipes unsupported and
vulnerable to damage that can reduce pressure to fire hydrants or even
cut them off completely.

It’s a worst-case scenario for the entire East Bay, but Gutleben
believes the danger for Alameda is compounded by his hometown’s
location. Connected to the mainland by just four bridges and two
underwater tubes, Alameda is also linked to the regional water system
by five connections spanning the Oakland Estuary. Although the East Bay
Municipal Utility District has the capacity to divert water around
potential breaks, Gutleben worries about the city’s position at the
“end of the line.”

Alameda Division Fire Chief Ricci Zombeck echoes that concern.
“We’re effectively the end of the line … and ultimately, in the event
of a large-scale incident, we know that there’s going to be damage to
the system across the system,” he said. This becomes a safety concern
because, although Alameda is surrounded by water and has two lagoons to
boot, it currently owns no equipment capable of pumping that water save
its five fire engines and an aging fireboat that was finally dry-docked
this month due to budget cuts after years of creaking toward
decommission.

Fire Chief David Kapler calls the water-pumping capability of fire
engines “very limited” and says that in the aftermath of a disaster
those engines would be sorely needed elsewhere. “Will we be able to
free up any of the engines to go to the bay and pump water?” he asked.
“Well, we don’t know. And even if we could, then it’s a matter of how
much hose we have and how far we can move it to where we need it,” he
offered. Because of such limitations — and because of goading by
Gutleben — the fire department has been eyeing portable equipment
such as tanker trucks and salt-water pumps. “The city has looked at
some prototypes and models that are out there, but it’s the cost that’s
really precluding us from doing anything to advance in that right now,”
Kapler said.

According to Zombeck’s most conservative estimate, one system
favored by Alameda would start at about $1.5 million for three
salt-water pumps and attendant equipment, with each pump costing
approximately $250,000. It’s uncommon for municipalities to have such
back-up hardware, although Zombeck said Oakland owns equipment for
constructing emergency above-ground distribution systems, a setup
similar to San Francisco’s. Meanwhile, Berkeley has invested in a
state-of-the-art portable pump system costing about $4.5 million for
the pumps and $3 million for transportation and storage. David Orth, a
retired deputy fire chief central to the Berkeley project, is so
excited by the new technology that he jokingly dubs himself a
salt-water pump “zealot.” “We’re happy that East Bay MUD is doing their
part and trying to make stuff better, but [we] also realize that we
can’t depend upon it as the only source for us,” he explained. “And so
we’re taking the proactive stance.”

Regarding Alameda, Orth said “maybe you’re not as secure as you
think.” He has advised the fire department about Berkeley’s pump system
and recommends that the island city pursue something similarly mobile
and portable if possible. “It’s not something anybody gave us a grant
for,” he added. “The citizens bought it through a bond measure.”

But budgets are abysmal in Alameda, and last month the fire
department began a system of brownouts, closing either an ambulance or
an engine each day that the number of on-duty responders fell below 27.
Kapler called the measures unavoidable, writing that “fire department
brownouts are a necessary reaction to the worsening local and national
economic recession.” The firefighters union countered with safety
concerns, reduced response times, and complaints that overtime has been
forced by frozen and unfunded positions (including Zombeck’s former job
as disaster preparedness coordinator). Union president Dominick Weaver
calls both the brownouts and the water-supply issue matters of “having
enough resources to respond.” And he agrees with Gutleben: “If the
water supply goes down in Alameda and we cannot fight a fire, it’s
going to be a conflagration of the kind of proportion that people
haven’t seen since the 1900s,” Weaver said.

But Chief Kapler disagrees. “If an earthquake happened this weekend,
it doesn’t leave us without something to do. Assuming that one or more
of our bridges are going to be open and passable, we can bring in
tanker trucks from other communities too. So until we get it here
locally, we would be drawing it in from mutual aid from other parts of
the state.” Yet in the event of a regional disaster that would keep
neighboring cities too busy to aid Alameda, the first outside help to
arrive would likely be from the Sacramento Valley.

Kapler added that Alameda also has one of the strongest and most
devoted teams of trained emergency volunteers in California, due in
part to community awareness that “there is a need to be self-sufficient
here because there is the possibility that we could be cut off from
outside help for a while.”

But for Gutleben, self-sufficiency begins with the water supply. He
calls suggestions that the island is prepared for disaster “criminal”
and points to his campaign of letters, editorials, and appearances
before the city council as evidence that officials were calling pumps
too pricey long before the current economic crisis. “Let it go on
record that our council and staff decided we can’t afford a salt water
pump system, a system that would cost less than $2 million and save
lives, as well as our architectural heritage,” reads one February 2007
letter to the Alameda Journal; a 2005 op-ed in the Alameda
Sun
details AFD declarations going back to 1998 that pumps are too
expensive. Gutleben laments that city officials knew about the
salt-water pump when Alameda began its disastrous foray into
telecommunications in the late 1990s — an endeavor that
ultimately cost the city nearly $90 million— and later when
efforts began on a $30.5 million renovation and expansion of the
Alameda Theatre and a new parking garage. In comparison, he argued, a
pump system is “a drop in the bucket.”

At Gutleben’s prompting, Vice Mayor Doug deHaan has twice in the
last four years proposed that Alameda pursue a feasibility study on the
issue. “I asked the Council to set aside some money just to look at it,
and we never did that,” he recalled. “Back then, I think you might have
had a good chance of doing it, maybe a fifty-fifty chance of getting
some initial [funding]. And maybe you might have even looked at your
internal funds, particularly transportation, something of that nature,
that maybe you could divert. Today, no. I think all bets are off
today.”

Because that planning was never done, such a project wouldn’t
qualify for the federal stimulus funding that Alameda has commenced
requesting with wild municipal abandon for its various “shovel-ready”
needs. Meanwhile, the fire department’s emergency water supply working
group hasn’t met since last August — budget problems forced it to
shift priorities just as the committee was getting ready to expand into
a citywide effort involving many departments, including the finance
department, Zombeck recalled.

“It’s something I hope to see us pick back up once we have the time
and perhaps a brighter budget picture,” he said.

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