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By William R. Wipprecht

Bill Wipprecht is the Security Officer for Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. in California.

We asked him if he would share his experiences during the earthquake with our readers. We think you will find this a fascinating account of the BIG ONE of 1989. And you might also find some helpful ideas on disaster preparation and recovery.

An earthquake may be the most perplexing of Mother Nature's catastrophes. It will level all the buildings in a block but one, which will remain undamaged. You never know how or where it will strike.

While being hurled from wall to wall in the hallway of my home at 5:04 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, October 17th, 1989, I was thinking that our old Spanish stucco house will soon be nothing but a big pile of rock and wood on an expensive, but devastated, real estate lot, because this is the BIG ONE!

I was home in San Francisco early, having returned mid-afternoon from my annual October pilgrimage to Los Angeles for the Wells Fargo Board of Director's meeting.

What a break, actually getting to see the start of game three of the World Series and not feeling guilty about leaving the office before 6 p.m. It was too good to be true!

But now, after the longest fifteen seconds of my life, I was checking the house, relieved to find only pictures hanging crooked, a fireplace screen fallen over, and not one new crack in the exterior stucco. I couldn't believe it! How could any object shake like this old house did and not fall down?

However, I still knew this was a major earthquake and while turning on the television, I was calling security operations at our data center to advise them to stand by.

Within seconds the television reporters were showing live pictures of the collapse of the Bay Bridge and the Cypress Freeway, and the fire and destruction in the Marina district.

This 7.1 quake left 68 dead, damaged 110,000 buildings, and forced 13,000 persons to live in shelters. Over 1,000 structures were declared unsafe or destroyed, with damage estimates exceeding $7 billion.

Extensive pre-planning and practice drills enabled many Bay Area firms to respond quickly, and while they struggled for the first few hours while activating their Emergency Operation Centers (EOC), for many it was almost "Business as Usual" because they were prepared for the effects of the earthquake.

Wells Fargo, as well as other major California banks, had taken the 1987 First Interstate fire very seriously, and because virtually every unit of the Bank had practiced so much over the past two years, this was like another major drill for most of our operations, including Security.

We had seen the miserable results of not being prepared after the October 1, 1987 Los Angeles/Whittier earthquake. That scenario was not going to happen again.

And it didn't.

However, because of the magnitude and devastation of the Bay Area earthquake, different types of security operations problems were encountered.

Immediate major problems were addressed and resolved in the Emergency Operations Center, either by the entire Emergency Committee, or by advice and consultation coming from a Security Representative manning the Center on a 24-hour basis.

The principal branch related problems that were presented to the EOC committee for resolution after the earthquake were:
Electrical power outages
No telephone communications
Physical damage to branches
Some vault doors wouldn't open
Safe deposit boxes which fell over or shifted
No armored car services were available

Security had to respond to EOC questions like, "What should we do?" or "How does that operate?"

ELECTRICAL POWER in many locations was disrupted or often shut off due to extenuating circumstances such as gas leaks. It was learned that some branches would not have power restored for as long as a week.

"How can we operate and provide normal security without electrical power?"

Well, let's list all of the equipment that requires electricity to operate: lighting, HVAC, processing machines, and telephones (line lights only).

All of the security related equipment has an independent eighty-hour battery backup system and will operate without electrical power.

TELEPHONES which are "really dead", (no lights or dial tone),take away the capability of activating the robbery alarm system during normal business hours.

However, once the vault is closed and locked (no electric timers) the branch is as secure as normal. Phones with a dial tone but no line lights are still usable as the alarm system still functions and the robbery buttons will work.

Even if the branch telephones aren't working, chances are the nearest public pay phone is.

Branch personnel can operate on a limited basis without power by allowing only three known customers into the branch at a time. (We have sporadic power outages all the time and the branches operate under the same written guidelines.)

Only minimal convenience type ransactions are authorized during these periods. This is not time to go for the big dollar deal. Most people will only want access to some cash during emergencies like this.

Electrical power and telephone operations were two issues addressed during the early evening hours immediately after the earthquake-these problems being very obvious to the group of forty standing around a table with the only light in the room emitting from our flashlights, and no workable phones except those in our cars!

Life got more complicated as reports of death and destruction throughout the Bay Area kept coming in. Accurate information about our branch system was slow and sporadic.

BRANCH DAMAGE reports were incomplete by mid-morning on Wednesday, the day after the quake.

We knew three were severely damaged and could not open for business. Some vault doors were knocked out of alignment and safety deposit boxes had shifted or tumbled to the floor.

Others were typical problems like ceiling tiles, pictures, and light fixtures falling, walls buckling and cracking, doors and windows out of alignment - the construction problems list just kept going on and on.

But our critical concern at this time was to determine security related problems in each branch and, at a minimum, get our security contractor to complete any required repair work necessary in order to keep each branch open.

After the first 24 hours, we knew by the reports coming in that several departments were using a hit-or-miss approach in collecting information and conducting repair work. (Yes, even at Wells Fargo!).

We decided the collection of information should be centralized.

So, on Thursday morning, thirty-six hours after the quake, we called in our primary security vendor to learn what they knew and determine a priority repair list.

They were prepared.

On Wednesday, they had already started calling the branches to compile a damage list. But, with telephone service severed or disrupted due to overloaded lines, their list was only about 40% complete, That sampling told us we had some severe problems that required immediate attention.

Our first priority now became to complete the branch contact list.

We discovered from talking to the Retail Division that branch managers contact a voice mail hotline every day for updated retail information.

On learning this, we immediately placed a voice-mail message requesting each branch manager to contact the security vendor with a damage assessment report at once.

Within hours we had damage assessment reports from over 95% of our branches.

We now had to determine and assign priority to the repair work.

We knew that the two primary security issues were safe deposit boxes shifting and vault doors out of alignment.

SAFE DEPOSIT BOXES near the quake's epicenter had actually toppled over, many nests had shifted to the point of toppling, and virtually all were out of alignment.

This meant there could be immediate danger to employees and, at the least, customers would not be able to open their boxes.

We agreed (after a lengthy discussion) that safe deposit boxes that had shifted more than six inches were probably life threatening because they would shift even further when the next aftershock hit, increasing the probability of toppling.

Those that had shifted that far had to be repositioned.

Boxes that had moved two to four inches should be surveyed, but if secure, made a secondary priority.

Those branches reporting boxes that moved less than two inches were going to have to wait.

VAULT DOORS were reported to have swung so hard that they knocked themselves out of alignment.

If one has not been through a major earthquake, it is probably quite difficult to imagine this. Imagine, a one-ton door swinging back and forth like a shutter in the wind!

Obviously, the vault doors were the number two priority, behind safe deposit boxes, for repair.

We were just about taking a deep breath, and getting ready to review information, our progress to date, and determine our next course of action when the next security crisis occurred.

Even after 48 hours none of the armored car companies were making deliveries or pickups!

With the electrical power still out in most areas, the armored car companies could not raise their electrically driven security garage doors.

Since most of the armored vehicles were in the garage at 5:04 p.m. two days previously, they were locked inside! (One can only speculate why the armored couriers do not have backup power to open the doors.)

"What can we do?" ('We', of course, meaning Security.)

Fortunately, we have our own Bay Area cash vault with available funds. (The power was out at our cash vault as well, but we had the capability of raising the door by hand.)

Within one hour we recruited six 'volunteer' security representatives and met them at the cash vault with five vehicles.

Their mission was to deliver millions of dollars of cash to three distribution points to keep the branches operational and the ATMs functional.

The first trip saw a red Jeep Wagoneer with five million dollars behind the rear seat heading north over the Golden Gate Bridge.

The second vehicle, a Lincoln Town Car, was also loaded with five million dollars and headed south. (Five million dollars completely fills the rear seat section and the trunk of a Lincoln.)

Our third trip was probably the ultimate in cash delivery. A stretch Lincoln was loaded with $15 million dollars. We had to take the back seats out of the Lincoln limo and fill that and the trunk in order to get all of the money in the car!

This cash was to be delivered to a branch that would have been only twenty miles away had the Bay Bridge not collapsed.

As it turned out, to reach the branch, they had to go south forty miles and then back north sixty miles, with volunteers riding "shotgun" in other vehicles!

Work was back to normal the following Monday, just five and one half days after the earthquake.

The EOC had been disbanded, all systems were operational, and power and telephone service had been restored.

Our security vendor had brought in additional crews to expedite the repair work.(We have since requested a design to "earthquake proof" our safe deposit boxes.)

We'll not quickly forget the ordeal that started at 5:04 p.m., Tuesday, October 17, 1989.

Prior to that date we knew there was a 50/50 chance of a major earthquake. Today, we are told there is still a 50/50 chance of another major earthquake within 30 years.

We'll be ready.

Copyright © 1990 Bankers' Hotline. Originally appeared in Bankers' Hotline, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2/90

First published on 02/01/1990

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