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
"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,
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
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,"
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
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
"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."
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