San Francisco earthquake retrofitting program crumbled 

It’s a rarity: a huge pot of money voters authorized, but barely touched.

Some $260 million in bonds approved in 1992 have not been tapped because the program to dispense the earthquake rehab funding proved onerous and expensive.

City leaders have considered repurposing the money, but that proved unwieldy. So now they say the funds probably won’t ever be collected or spent.

The money was intended to help people who owned brick buildings reinforce them against earthquakes. Unreinforced Masonry buildings were among those most likely to collapse during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

The City decreed that all masonry buildings should be strengthened. To pay for this, voters were asked to approve $350 million in bonds. Of that, $150 million was set aside for buildings providing affordable housing, including $60 million in deferred loans — money that doesn’t have to be repaid for 55 years, or until the property is sold.

While that part of the program proved popular, the second was hardly used.

It was intended to provide property owners with low-interest loans to help pay for a retrofit. But the legislation made it more expensive to get a loan from The City than from a bank. Interest rates exceeded those found at many banks, and 50 percent of the laborers on any bond-funded retrofit had to be paid higher-than-normal wages and come from a disadvantaged group, according to information from the Mayor’s Office of Housing.  

These factors made the program unpopular, so most building owners found other ways to fund their retrofits, said office director Doug Shoemaker.

Nonetheless, virtually all of San Francisco’s unreinforced brick buildings have now been retrofitted, Department of Building Inspection spokesman William Strawn said. The City is sometimes held up as a gold standard for its success in reinforcing brick buildings within its borders.

As the years passed and the bonds went untouched, city leaders considered repurposing the money to fund retrofits of San Francisco’s ubiquitous soft-story buildings, in which multiple floors tower over a garage or storefront that might lack the strength to hold them up during an earthquake.

But last year, The City’s controller said doing so would affect San Francisco’s bond rating. Bond rating agencies have essentially written that debt off the books and made assumptions that it will never actually be spent. So if it were spent, mayoral spokeswoman Christine Falvey said it could affect The City’s financial standing. Also, officials would need to secure the permission of voters in two separate ballot measures.

At a hearing earlier this month, Supervisor Scott Wiener held up the failed program as an example of how not to handle a soft-story mandate, if there is one.

“We made it so onerous and bureaucratic to even take advantage of that financing that people just didn’t want to deal with it,” he said. “So that would be my other question, how do we provide access to financing that people will actually use?”


How the funds were assigned  

In November 1992, San Francisco voters approved a $350 million general obligation bond measure to provide loans to private owners of unreinforced masonry buildings (UMBs).  Of the $350 million, $150 million was set aside for buildings providing affordable housing, $60 million of which was made available as deferred 55-year loans. The remaining $200 million is to fund the seismic retrofit of all other buildings.  A maximum of $35 million in loans is funded annually. Currently, about $260 million remains unspent.


Survivor of quake among few left for fountain ceremony

On this day 105 years ago, 3-month-old Bill DelMonte was riding a horse-drawn buckboard through two walls of flames from his house at Kearny Street and Broadway to The Embarcadero.

Before dawn today, DelMonte, 105, will have stood with city leaders such as Mayor Ed Lee in tribute to San Francisco for pushing through the 1906 earthquake and fire.

DelMonte is the only one of three known survivors who made the annual 5 a.m. ceremony at the original, post-quake meeting place: Lotta’s Fountain at Geary and Market streets.

“There are only a few of us left,” said DelMonte, who was wearing a firefighter’s hat that read “survivor” across the front while sitting next to his 7-year-old great-great grandniece during a preceremony Sunday lunch at John’s Grill.

The quake and subsequent fires pulverized The City, killing hundreds if not thousands of people.

But the tradition for the past 20-plus years has been to offer a little incentive for those who make it out so early.

Today, Lee, police Chief Jeff Godown, fire Chief Joanna Hayes-White and several emergency personnel, with DelMonte, are planning to sing an ode led by comedian Bob Sarlatte clad in timely attire with six accompanying trumpets.

Then after the ceremony they will drive to the only fire hydrant in The City that worked during the fires, at 20th and Church streets, for its annual repainting.

DelMonte, surrounded by four generations of family, said this is the third year that he’s gone to John’s Grill for lunch, joined the ceremony, then headed to Lefty O’Doul’s for the Bloody Mary after-party.

DelMonte acknowledged he was too young to remember the disaster itself but said one thing was for sure, “It took a long time to rebuild San Francisco.”

—Kamala Kelkar


1906 quake

  • 5:13 a.m.: Time the earthquake struck
  • 40 seconds: Length of time quake lasted
  • 300 miles: Surface ruptured along fault line
  • 8.3: Magnitude
  • 3,000: Deaths
  • 225,000: Injuries
  • $400 million: Damage Pacifica Epicenter

Sources: Berkeley Seismology Lab, SF Exploratorium


Facts about  Great Fire that followed earthquake:

  • 2 days: Length of time fire burned
  • 2,831: Acres of The City destroyed
  • 490: City blocks affected
  • 30: Schools destroyed
  • 80: Churches burned
  • 250,000: Homes destroyed
  • 2,000 degrees: Temperature fire reached

Source: SF Exploratorium


How to plan for the big one

Before a quake:

  • Make sure everyone can find emergency kits.
  • Put a flashlight and pair of shoes under beds.
  • Plan where to meet.
  • Designate an out-of-state contact person.
  • Make sure everyone knows how to turn off gas and use fire extinguishers.

During a quake:

  • If indoors, drop and cover beneath a table or desk or near an interior wall. Avoid windows, mirrors, hanging objects, tall furniture and other objects that could fall.
  • If outside, avoid power lines, buildings and trees.
  • If driving, pull over and avoid overhead hazards.
  • If at the beach, move to higher ground.

Source: San Francisco Department of Emergency Management

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Katie Worth

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