Is Oakland Ready for the Big One?

The upper deck of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland collapsed during 1989's Loma Prieta Earthquake. Photo by flickr user Joe Lewis.

The earthquake that affected parts of Mexico in September has many people talking about how prepared California and the region are for the next natural disaster. Experts at the U.S Geological Survey agree that the Bay Area has a 98 percent chance of experiencing a major seismic event in the next 30 years. When it does hit, will Oakland and other cities be ready? At a recent SPUR forum, panelists talked about the city’s current work addressing uncertainty and meeting the immediate and long-term challenges of a major earthquake.

Even after the immediate safety risks of an earthquake have passed, Oaklanders will face economic and functional losses to local businesses, housing and other community services. Drawing on SPUR’s 2008 report on emergency response plans, the City of Oakland identified at-risk communities and areas needing attention and, in 2016, created the Resilient Oakland Playbook to outline goals for the city to respond to stresses. Part of the solution is to retrofit buildings to make structural changes that will reduce earthquake damage. Retrofits save lives, save money and greatly reduce the risk of displacement due to damage or repairs.

What Is Oakland Doing?

The city’s recovery will rely on limiting the displacement of residents from damaged buildings. Oakland is targeting older single-family homes and “soft story” buildings — those with large openings like garages or storefront windows on the ground floor — where a basic retrofit can greatly strengthen the building and help prevent displacement.

The state has funded the California Earthquake Brace and Bolt retrofit program, which offers a $3,000 subsidy to those who seismically retrofit older homes. In addition, the City of Oakland is working with FEMA to create two programs to facilitate owner-occupied retrofits and soft-story building retrofits: The city will subsidize up to 75 percent of costs to help low-income homeowners and building owners complete their retrofits. The program offers a non-digital application, and staff members are working on additional outreach to Oakland’s vulnerable communities. For some building owners who provide greater affordable housing benefits, the city may subsidize more than 75 percent of the cost.

Oakland has about 1,400 soft-story buildings in its housing stock. Under former Mayor Jean Quan, the city implemented a mandatory screening program to confirm its inventory.

In addition to the ongoing subsidy program, Oakland is in the process of creating an ordinance to retrofit all soft-story buildings within four to six years. A combination of grants and low-interest loans will help fund retrofit costs for building owners, despite shrinking state funding. The city has also identified the need to expedite permitting processes for these retrofits and providing project management support to building owners.

The Resilient Oakland Playbook is an important step in preparing the city for the region’s next major natural disaster. Oakland is making slow progress with retrofits and with legislation that needs to balance short-term costs with long-term benefits. The next big challenge is finding funding sources to ensure that those needing help can receive it.


Special thanks to David Bonowitz, S.E.