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Is the San Francisco Zoo ready for a tsunami?

Jeneé Darden
Lemurs at the San Francisco Zoo

Hurricanes don’t occur in the Bay Area, but after seeing so many animals rescued after the recent devastating storms in the Caribbean, one KALW listener asks about San Francisco Zoo's disaster plans.

The aftermath of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria left people and animals struggling to survive. Various reports say the storms displaced thousands of animals in Houston, Florida, and the Caribbean. Animal rescue teams from around the United States deployed to the mainland and islands.


If trying to evacuate a pet during a hurricane is challenging, imagine being responsible for zoo animals during any natural disaster.


One KALW listener who lived near the San Francisco Zoo, which sits right across from the ocean, is concerned about an issue more unique to the Bay Area.


Her Hey Area question: "What’s the plan for the San Francisco Zoo in case of a tsunami?”


Emergency Plan


While watching a group of lemurs playing at the San Francisco Zoo, deputy director Joe Fitting tells me the first step in their tsunami preparation plan is to listen for the city’s tsunami warning horns.


“If we have some time we’ll secure our animals within their habitat enclosures and have everybody head to high ground,” he says. “We don’t want some sort of dangerous animal getting out into the general population.”

The 100-acre zoo is home to more than 1,000 animals, but when it comes to the animals' safety during a tsunami, "there’s not much we can do," Fitting says. "A lot of these buildings are enclosed and have walls and doors and stuff like that.”   

San Francisco Zoo’s plans are fairly standard. Many zoos have policies where animals are not evacuated. It’s for their own protection. Ron Magill, a Zoo Miami official, explained this in an MSNBC interview during Hurricane Irma.

“To move them them off the ground is so stressful for these animals, that potentially in it of itself could kill them,” he said.

Zoo Miami’s animals survived Irma, thanks to special storm bunkers. During Hurricane Harvey, Houston Zoo Keepers slept in storm-safe buildings with the animals. Kevin Hodge led a team of zoo keepers who rode out the storm.

“I slept in the bug house,” Hodge told KHOU News. “I was in there with the roaches, walking sticks and that kind of thing. I was safe in there.”

Of course we don’t experience hurricanes in San Francisco. Still, the zoo animals will probably be safer in their cages during a tsunami.

What are the chances of a tsunami?

Across the street from the zoo, at a very windy Ocean Beach, I meet up with Christina Ruhl. She’s a researcher at UC Berkeley’s Seismological Laboratory. We are high up on a sand dune and can see the zoo behind us. As we talk, we look below the sand dune and watch the water gently ride onto the shore. I ask her if a tsunami would have any effects detrimental to the zoo.

“We’re about 50 feet above sea level," Ruhl answers, "and because of that height, the chance of significant damage here is pretty low.”


She thinks it’s unlikely that the waves would reach the zoo.


“The distance the water might run on shore is not very far,” she says. “But there is a chance we may get tsunamis here. In the 1906 earthquake, there was a tsunami in this area, but it didn’t run very far in this area.”


Ruhl adds that a few of our West Coast neighbors are at greater risk for tsunamis.


“In areas like Cascadia which encompasses the states of Oregon and Washington, there’s a subduction zone fault offshore,” she says. “And that can create much larger tsunamis.”  

In subduction zone faults, one tectonic plate rides over another, which creates greater movement of the water. Ruhl says most of our faults in California are called strike-slip faults. These kinds of plates move past each other in a sideways motion.

“If you were in the bathtub and put your hand through like a shark fin, then pushed it — it would go through the water relatively easy,” she says. “It would not create a bunch of waves. But if you put it flat and lifted your palm up,  it would create a lot of displacement of water. That’s kind of like a tsunami.”

A calm moment


Back at the zoo, Joe Fitting and I walk past families pushing their babies in strollers. Giraffes walk majestically across a green field. It’s hard to imagine a tsunami in this serene moment. But Fitting says they’re prepared for all sorts of emergencies.

“Public safety is our number one priority,” he reminds me. “Then the safety of our animal collection and our zoo staff.”


For now, at least, the 1,000 or so animals of the San Francisco Zoo remain safe and dry.


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