5 Tips If You're on the New Bay Bridge in an Earthquake

The Bay Bridge's new eastern span. (Isabel Angell / KQED)
The Bay Bridge's new eastern span (Isabel Angell / KQED)

By Joshua Johnson

It’s the reason Caltrans upgraded the Bay Bridge in the first place: After the 7.1-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, we all knew the eastern span could not survive another major temblor. Now drivers have a much safer span with better views of the bay. But what if you’re on the bridge when the Big One hits? Every temblor is different, so it’s hard to generalize about what you should do. Here are five tips to prepare you for an earthquake on the new Bay Bridge from Officer Sam Morgan, Oakland Area spokesman for the California Highway Patrol:

First, you might not feel a small quake at all due to the eastern span’s seismic shock absorbers. If you do feel it, try to pull over, stop safely and wait for the shaking and/or rolling to stop.

Second, and most important, STAY CALM. Morgan says a level head is vital to staying safe and alive after a big quake. Once the shaking stops, take a moment to assess the situation around you before doing anything. What’s the condition of the roadway – does it seem buckled? Does the self-anchored suspension tower above you look stable? Is there anything else above you that might fall? Are there car fires? Are there live wires? What's around you that looks hazardous? And what about you – are you injured but perhaps don't feel it because your adrenaline is flowing?

"When that top section collapsed (in Loma Prieta)," Morgan said, "there were one or two vehicles on the top section. … Two of those vehicles actually drove into the collapsed section more out of panic than anything else.”


Third, keep your initial assessment in mind when deciding whether to help quake victims on the bridge. If you get yourself in danger while trying to render aid, you might unwittingly become part of the emergency response problem instead of the solution. Hard as it may be in that moment to stay put and not help other people in need, it might be the safest and wisest option. Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training is a great way to learn how to handle all kinds of disasters -- you can take free classes from your local first responders.

Morgan says the key thing to ask yourself is: Can I help out without needlessly or overly jeopardizing my safety?

Fourth, be careful when evacuating the Bay Bridge – it might be safer to walk off instead of drive, or you might need to sit tight and wait to be rescued. When the Big One hits, CHP and Caltrans engineers will probably block access to the bridge and other major bridges for a damage assessment. If the span is unsafe, they’ll evacuate victims either by letting people drive themselves out, bringing people out in emergency vehicles, airlifting people out or even walking them off the span.

“When the Cypress structure (near the Bay Bridge) collapsed (in Loma Prieta),” Morgan said, “we couldn’t do any driving off of the bridge because of the rippling and the buckling of the roadway. The same was true for the area in the… toll plaza.”

But the time to prepare for a major earthquake is well before it strikes.

Fifth tip: Stock your vehicle with emergency supplies. These include tools that can help you escape your car if necessary, like a spring-loaded center punch to break through the window or a blade sharp enough to cut through seat belts (stored within reach of the driver’s seat). A first-aid kit is always good to have, as well as water, a solar or hand-cranked radio (tuned to KQED 88.5 FM, of course, for continuing coverage), a flashlight in case the quake hits at night and knocks out power, blankets and cash. Morgan even recommends keeping a USB thumb drive with your medical information so first responders know how to care for you. If you do that, make sure the files are in commonly used formats like plain text, Word or PDF.