Stephen Ellison

How Technology Has Made the Bay Area More Earthquake Safe

The Bay Area will never forget how many lives were lost and how much damage was done during the magnitude 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake in October 1989. Since then, the technology industry has taken on the challenge of making our workplaces, hospitals and houses more earthquake safe.

After the historic quake, Bay Area engineers went to work designing new technology to eventually anchor the buildings of today. Buildings like the new Stanford Hospital, made to stand out above ground and to withstand an earthquake of 8.0 underground.

Under the building, engineer Bert Hurlbut showed NBC Bay Area how the structure is raised up above 206 base isolators, pedestals secured under the hospital’s foundation. They weigh up to 4 tons each, he said, allowing the structure to shift by as much as 6 feet during an earthquake.

"The base isolation is this blue plate," Hurlbut said, pointing to a the base of one pedestal. "And the two halves will shear back and forth. That is gonna move back and forth during the earthquake, and the building, essentially, is gonna sit still."

The hospital features close to $50 million in state of the art earthquake tech, the kind also anchoring Apple’s giant new campus "spaceship" campus.

"It turns out Apple had a huge influence on the way this building was designed," Hurlbut said about Stanford Hospital. "Steve Jobs was gonna work with the hospital, but then decided, 'Nah, I’m gonna do my own.'"

There are also innovative technologies to help keep individual homes earthquake safe. Some of that tech comes in a different shape, as in the shape of water to separate buildings from the ground.

Los Gatos-based Arx Pax has designed what it calls Safe Project, using nature to help a house sway safely.

"We are floating buildings on water," CEO Greg Henderson said. "Fundamentally, it’s thinking about building in a different way. Rather than fighting Mother Nature with sheer brute force, we want to allow the forces to pass by harmlessly."

The federal government says fixing an earthquake damaged building can cost four times as much as building one in the first place.

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