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September 01, 2008

How Would the World React to a Powerful Silicon Valley Quake?

Today, the nation's attention is on the New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast area, as residents there ready themselves for what could be a major disaster in Hurricane Gustav, just three short years after the horrors of Hurricane Katrina. The Gulf Coast, behind only the Southern tip of Florida and North Carolina, is the third-most likely spot in the United States to be hit by hurricane, and this inevitability has some wondering why residents would stay in such a disaster-prone area. This thinking had me wondering about how the world would react if Silicon Valley, its companies, and its sometimes well-to-do residents were impacted by a disaster they too are prone to - be it earthquake or fire.

Regardless where you live, it's likely you're at risk to some form of disaster. In Kansas, it's tornadoes. In Hawaii and parts of Washington or Alaska, it could be a volcanic eruption. In Minnesota, a blizzard, or an ice storm. In varying areas of California, it could be mudslides, forest fires, drought or earthquake.

And despite this knowledge, people continue to build, all while recognizing that each new home or bridge or highway overpass built near a fault line will, at some point, be stressed by an earthquake. While we have been lucky over the last two decades to not have faced a destructive quake, and significant efforts have been made to earthquake-proof structures throughout the region, there's no doubt potential is there for serious calamity. Meanwhile, over the twenty years following the Loma Prieta quake, Silicon Valley's impact on the world's commerce has only increased, as technology, and the Internet itself, have become essential.

While it's a rare person who will brazenly say that Gulf Coast victims should have known better than to return to New Orleans and the surrounding area, these internal monologues do occasionally bubble to the top. One FriendFeed user, Anthony Citrano, said on Sunday, “Is it terrible that I have a very hard time feeling sorry for people who have rebuilt in New Orleans, ten feet below sea level?”, kicking off a vibrant discussion.

Nearly every respondent in the thread sounded alarm at his question, but there were those who said, it "just seems like you are asking for trouble" to rebuild in the area that had been hit before. Others brought up the issue of the victims' income, and made it clear that while they might be sympathetic to poorer people who were impacted, that they would not be sympathetic to "millionaires" who built homes on the edges of cliffs, or on beachfront property, in time of disaster. And it's this latter part that has me thinking a bit on how Silicon Valley is perceived.

Thanks to the romanticism of the booming stock market in the last nineties and early 2000s, and the high visibility of Silicon Valley successes like Google, Yahoo!, Intel and others, as well as a preponderance of very real successful businesspeople with their BMWs, Audis, and million-dollar-plus homes, it's not likely that the same kind of sympathy could be expected for a $200k-salaried MBA as for a poverty-stricken family of five. It's unlikely that cracks in one of Oracle's famous blue towers or blown out windows and roofs at a warehouse-like building on Cisco or Google's sprawling campuses would elicit the same kind of gut reaction we saw from the tattered Louisiana Superdome in Katrina.

That the Bay Area saw tragic earthquakes in 1906 and 1989 didn't slow down the area's population growth, and it's unlikely the next big one, regardless of its size, will make people change their minds about living here. While many of the Valley's biggest and most visible tech companies have outsourced some aspects of their business, including production of their goods, internationally, and Web sites often have multiple, secure, hosting centers in disparate locations, there would undoubtedly be significant impact if the Valley were to be slowed for any period of time. But would people feel sorry for these Californians who "should have known better" than to build such a foundation on shaky ground, or would we hear the same kind of discussions posted by Mr. Citrano, that question our living in a land fraught with risk?