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Earthquakes: A fight to protect infrastructure

A bicyclist rides by debris following the 1994 Northridge quake. (Photo: Joseph Sohm)

The images of California’s powerful earthquakes over the years have been vivid — the shattered buildings, the collapsed bridges, the buckled highways.

A Los Angeles lawmaker is proposing updated earthquake legislation geared toward saving infrastructure, noting that modern building codes are designed to save lives but not necessarily preserve the physical structures.

“We deserve a stronger, safer California that can bounce back quickly after the ‘big one’ hits,” Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian said in a written statement. “We are already dealing with a severe housing crisis,” he added.  Nazarian, D-North Hollywood, contends his Assembly Bills 1857 and 2681 will help communities after they are affected by earthquakes.

In 1989, as the Oakland Athletic’s and the San Francisco Giants were warming up for the third game of the World Series, the Loma Prieta quake struck, killing 67 and causing $7 billion in damage.

The state also faces steadily crumbling infrastructure, including roads, and already has approved billions of dollars in new revenue to fix it.

AB 1857 would alleviate a potential massive loss of housing by instructing the California Building Standards Commission to increase minimum mandatory building standards. The design of an ordinary building would be 50 percent stronger and stiffer than otherwise required.

Most types of buildings, like office buildings, apartments and commercial spaces would be affected. Single-family homes and duplexes would be exempt.

Under AB 2681, cities would be required to identify seismic vulnerabilities in buildings and map them by 2020, allowing local authorities to be better prepared in the event of a disaster. According to the bill, “potentially vulnerable buildings” would not include hospitals, public schools, or buildings owned by the state or local government, which are protected under separate laws.

Ryan Kersting, associate principal at Buehler & Buehler Structural Engineers, Inc. in Sacramento, said there are even higher building standards for hospitals and the other “potentially vulnerable” buildings.

Keith Porter, a research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, conducted a study showing a large earthquake could decimate many homes and cause tons of destruction, much like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

California is no stranger to earthquakes and their destruction.

In 1906, nearly 30,000 buildings in San Francisco were destroyed and 3,000 people killed after an estimated 7.9 magnitude ruptured the San Andreas fault to the north and south of the city. Damages were estimated at $500 million.

In 1989, as the Oakland Athletic’s and the San Francisco Giants were warming up for the third game of the World Series, the Loma Prieta quake struck, killing 67 and causing $7 billion in damage.

In 1992, a 7.2 magnitude quake rumbled through Humboldt County just after 11 a.m., hitting the rural town of Ferndale the hardest. Seismologists said shockwaves were felt in San Francisco, about 260 miles away. The 6.5 and 6.6 aftershocks caused more than $60 million in losses and gained a FEMA “major disaster” declaration.

“The natural disasters of 2017 remind us of the need to be prepared for the major earthquakes that are inevitable in California.” — Dave Jones.

Ferndale is home to some of California’s best-preserved Victorian homes. Many buildings on main street were thrown off their foundations, crumpling to the ground.

According to Nazarian’s office, analyses of large earthquakes anticipated in Southern California and the Bay Area predict that up to half of buildings built to the current code will suffer enough damage to be deemed “dangerous” by local building departments.

More than 1.2 million homes in the high-hazard areas of the state are vulnerable, according to the California Earthquake Authority. In 2017, the CEA provided $6 million in funding for grants to support 2,000 or more seismic retrofits for older homes as part of the Earthquake Brace + Bolt Program. But the program is currently closed.

And there is fear and uncertainty over when the next big quake will hit.

“The natural disasters of 2017 remind us of the need to be prepared for the major earthquakes that are inevitable in California,” said Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones.

The Southern California Earthquake Center predicts the chance of California experiencing a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquakes over the next 30 years is almost 98 percent. Based on the July 2017 report from the Third Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast model, the Northern San Andreas Fault has a lower likelihood of hosting an earthquake, compared to the Southern San Andreas Fault, because of the 1906 earthquake on the same fault.

A recent study by the International Code Council discovered that for every dollar invested in strengthening building codes, the state could save $4 in repair costs.

The likelihood of larger earthquakes are predicted to hit the Los Angeles region, and the Hayward-Rodgers Creek and Calaveras Faults are likely to host an earthquake.

The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency said that if a 7.0 quake hit the Hayward Fault, hundreds could be killed and over 60,000 would be injured. It is predicted that over 50 percent of the area would be without power and water on the first day.

If a 7.8 quake were to hit the San Andreas Fault, 2,550 people would die and more than 222,000 would be injured. Over 50 percent of the community would experience power loss and 60 percent would be without water the first day.

But sometimes earthquakes are not predictable. In 2014, seismologists were surprised when a 6.0 struck Napa, causing extensive damage and killing one person.

Updated legislation could not only better prepare the state, but also save money.

A recent study by the International Code Council discovered that for every dollar invested in strengthening building codes, the state could save $4 in repair costs.

The National Institute of Building Sciences expanded on the ICC study and found that the nation could save $6 in future disaster costs, for every dollar spent on hazard mitigation.

After disasters, insurers pay about one-third of the cost. As a last resort, government-created organizations like the California Earthquake Authority and the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association act as insurers.

“The concept of how building performance affects the ability of our communities to recover from an event is a fairly new conversation being held by many different stakeholder groups at local, state, and national levels,” Kersting said in an email to Capitol Weekly.

 


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