By R.B. Scott
San Francisco, CA - Helicopters have been buzzing overhead for nearly a week. San Francisco is not a combat zone, yet. But, it may begin to resemble one before Super Bowl 50 gets underway Sunday night in glittery Levi’s Stadium, 45 miles down the peninsula from the city the National Football League and The 49ers abandoned just this year. Oh, the painful irony.
Please also note that the customary if pretentious Roman numerals have been dropped from this year’s contest. It is Super Bowl 50 not, Super Bowl L, which some might have mistaken for a typographical error. Anyway, the first three games, the game was known simply as the NFL-AFL Championship, although some revisionist historian later made the appropriate adjustments. Dallas Cowboys owner Lamar Hunt used super bowl to describe the game and soon, despite his firm belief that the name could be improved upon, the media overrode him. And, now Super is attached to everything --from half-baked Hollywood Super Stars to Super Size Cokes at McDonald's. Sigh. Enough already!
For the 50th edition, the Embarcadero Center area, a vital transportation and financial hub roughly the size of Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, was cordoned off two weeks ago and transformed into Super Bowl City. The highly securitized zone requires visitors to endure TSA-like screenings, bomb-sniffing dogs and uniformed officers armed with loaded assault rifles. In fact, every single police officer available has been mobilized for the week. No time off for anyone until everyone finally goes home.
The thousands of homeless who normally bed down and do their business in the alcoves, alleyways, sidewalks and parks inside the zone were encouraged to visit adjoining neighborhoods until the city returns to normal, a week or so after the game.
Even executives who for years have been paying upwards of $800-per-month for assigned spaces beneath Embarcadero 4, the skyscraper centered in the new city, are encountering challenges parking their cars each and every day. Trunks and hoods are opened, passenger compartments thoroughly inspected while personal identification documents are reviewed. Pity the executive with a “foreign” name who leaves home with only his American Express Card.
It is 3:30 p.m. the Monday afternoon of Super Bowl Week. Helicopters are once again buzzing over Russian Hill. The neighborhood is accustomed to Blue Angels et al screaming low and loud overhead during Fleet Week every October. But it’s winter and these unmarked black whirlybirds are flying really low and returning often. What is going on?
Bulletin from the National Nuclear Security Administration: “A helicopter may be seen flying at low altitudes over portions of the San Francisco Bay Area from January 29 through February 6, 2016. The purpose of the flyovers is to measure naturally occurring background radiation.”
That explains everything. Not!
Who besides the people who work there ever heard of the NNSA anyway? It was formed by Congress in the wake of the Y2K panic. Standby for a sanitized, edited and deliberately ambiguous description of its mission: “NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency within the U.S. Department of Energy responsible for enhancing national security through the military application of nuclear science. NNSA maintains and enhances the safety, security, and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile without nuclear explosive testing; works to reduce the global danger from weapons of mass destruction; … and responds to nuclear and radiological emergencies in the U.S. and abroad.”
Apparently someone fears the mob scene in San Francisco this week could turn into next “radiological emergency." .Mapping normal background radiation levels will enable NNSA to detect if a neutron bomb found its way into the city just in time for the big game. Or to disrupt a massive street party in Super Bowl City.
Sunday afternoon—a full seven days before the kickoff-- Anne Neuwald from toney neighborhood of Pacific Heights observed: “Whew, I've never seen a helicopter get so close to my kitchen window. Called police who gave me an FAA phone number, which was for a complaint line that promised to get back in four weeks. Forget that.”
Well after the sun had set that night, down the hill in The Marina District, an equally fine neighborhood that was built on the debris from the Great Earthquake of 1906 and damaged heavily in the nationally televised 1989 World Series shaker, Krystel Harvey complained: “Isn't it (the helicopter survey) only supposed to take place during daylight hours? I'm still hearing really loud helicopter noises. How am I supposed to get my kid to sleep with all that racket?”
About the same time up the hill in Pac Heights, Marisa Johnson confirmed the flyover: “It just flew past my bedroom window, so low it probably should soon apply for a residential parking permit.”
Most here are seriously grateful that the low-flying helicopter survey may prevent the worst from happening here in the city the NFL and the 49ers snubbed. In a backhanded way they are also smugly proud about how things are playing out.
The gaudy athletic contest (it has been reported that scalpers are getting as much as $25,000 for a prime seat) will go down in a new stadium with loose turf in one of those look-alike suburbs down south.
Meantime, all the heavy partying, the really fun stuff, is unfolding right where it belongs, up the peninsula in Shaky Town.