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Officials say San Francisco International Airport is ready for any disaster

By Kelly Paku, Bay City News Service

April 9, 2006

In the event of another major earthquake striking Northern California, San Francisco International Airport may very well be one of the safest places to be, as officials are constantly preparing for the next unexpected disaster.

When the San Andreas fault ruptured on Oct. 17, 1989, resulting in the magnitude 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake, the airport held up fairly well, according Bill Wilkinson, manager of emergency operations at SFO.

"Fortunately damage was relatively moderate for the airport and injuries were thankfully relatively minor ones,'' Wilkinson said.

"Much of the other damage was characterized by water leaks and dislodged ceiling tiles.''

Serving as a hub for millions of travelers each year, the airport, which is located off U.S. Highway 101 between San Bruno and Millbrae, will play a key role in bringing in needed resources following a major man-made or natural disaster.

It was in 2001 that the airport was put to the test during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Lt. John Quinlan, director of the San Mateo County Office of Emergency Services and Homeland Security, said.

According to Quinlan, at the time, some 8,000 travelers had to be evacuated from the airport. Quinlan said all of the passengers went to a hotel adjacent to the airport and, within five hours, family members, friends and local taxi drivers had picked up all 8,000 wayward travelers.

The evacuation "was a huge success. We have to embrace every disaster there is," Quinlan said. "Our role in the Office of Emergency Services is to get life back to normal."

In the event of a large quake, Wilkinson said the Health and Safety Department would be responsible for evacuating all of the passengers at the airport. Any decisions directing travelers to shelter in place would be made in consultation with the airport's public information officer, airlines and the airport's incident commander, Wilkinson said.

"The airport is not designed or organized to be a place of residence and has few amenities for long-term stays,'' Wilkinson. "SFO supports about 32 million passengers each year and dividing by 365 gives 89,000 persons traveling per day.''

Though the airport is not designed to house people, Quinlan said in a tight squeeze the airport could be used as a shelter if it's not structurally damaged.

While the airport does have its own emergency response units, SFO adheres to the state's emergency management system, which is a multi-level response plan that links local and state disaster response teams in the event of some type of disaster, according to Quinlan.

Quinlan said a major concern for him surrounding the airport, in addition to the safe evacuation of travelers, is the instability of the land the airport sits on.

"The airport is a very important structure to us because it drives the local economy," Quinlan said. "But it's not on the firmest of soil."

Since the airport is built on bay mud, its susceptibility to liquefaction is extremely high. According to Tom Brocher, Northern California co-coordinator of earthquake hazards investigations for the U.S. Geological Survey, liquefaction is the conversion of soil into liquid.

"The shaking will actually cause the ground to turn into a liquid, like quick sand," Brocher said. "Even a small quake could compromise the runways."

Brocher said that, though SFO doesn't lie on top of a fault, it's close enough to have high liquefaction rates.

"The hazard is really from the strong ground shaking," Brocher said.

If liquefaction does occur as expected during a large earthquake, airport runways could sustain huge fractures making them unsafe for incoming and outgoing flights.

During the Loma Prieta earthquake, about 3,000 feet of Oakland International Airport's runways sustained cracks, Oakland International Airport spokeswoman Cyndy Johnson said.

Though liquefaction is a viable threat in the Bay Area, Wilkinson said that, since SFO has four operating runways, there is a "fair possibility that at least one of them will remain in service."

"All surfaces would be inspected immediately after the shocks by the Airfield Safety Officers, and a decision made as to whether the surfaces can remain in full or limited service," Wilkinson said.

If the airport were unable to receive incoming flights following a large quake, Quinlan said those flights could possibly be diverted to either the Mineta San Jose or Oakland international airports. Moffett Field in Mountain View and the Half Moon Bay Airport could also be used to support smaller aircrafts.

"We're airport rich," Quinlan said. "We have multiple options." Wilkinson said SFO is in constant communication with the Mineta San Jose and Oakland international airports, as all three mutually support exercises, "attend joint meetings on local and national issues, act in cooperation through professional organizations, trade information on planning and advances in technologies" and engage in a variety of other planning and deployment exercises.

"SFO is as prepared as any airport can be for any number of possible disaster scenarios," Wilkinson said.

And, while the airport is fully prepared for any type of disaster, both Quinlan and Wilkinson said passengers need to be equally prepared.

"If you're prepared and you're safe, you can be of service to other people," Quinlan said. "You have to plan, you have to train and you have to exercise."

Copyright © 2006 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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