Unsettling news about earthquakes has rattled much of California this year.

Thirty years after the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, a U.S. Geological Survey geologist is calling the Bay Area a “tectonic time bomb,” and the head of U.C. Berkeley’s Seismological Lab is warning that “Loma Prieta was not the big one” — an even more destructive quake is waiting to strike.

2019 A Big Year for Quakes and Resiliency

Image Credit to California Academy of Sciences

Southern California had its own scares this year, with a whopping 7.1-magnitude earthquake in July coming on the heels of a 6.4 temblor in Ridgecrest.

And lurking just beneath the harbor in Long Beach is a newly awakened giant: the Wilmington Blind-Thrust fault, which was long dormant but has recently shown new activity that could spark a destructive 6.4-magnitude quake locally, or trigger the nearby San Andreas to produce an even larger temblor reaching in the 7 magnitudes.

Good News

We are all fortunate that woven into this fabric of earthquakes and fault discoveries is a growing movement to make our cities safer.

California in 2019 rolled out its early warning system, designed to save lives by giving people about 20 valuable seconds to prepare before an earthquake strikes.  A newly released phone app will enable the Office of Emergency Services to broadcast warnings throughout the state, should a major quake be detected.

And now, new funding from the federal government will help expand or strengthen the system around Lake Tahoe, Death Valley, Mammoth and Bishop, where the potential for major earthquakes has been found.

State and local governments continue to identify vulnerable buildings that may be significantly damaged or collapse in a major earthquake. This includes some 600 structures recently pinpointed on college campuses up and down the coast.

And in the Los Angeles region, more than 2,500 soft-story apartment buildings have been retrofitted, with another 10,000 in the process or expected to complete retrofits within the next five years.

Why is Protecting Buildings Important?

Los Angeles County ranks as No. 1 region for earthquake damage and loss, according to the United States Geological Survey. A recent study at U.C. Berkeley performed by the California Geological Survey supported that finding, ranking potential damage in Southern California higher than that of any other part of the state, including San Francisco.

The California Geological Survey found that in Southern California a magnitude 7.1 quake along the Puente Hills fault could bring an estimated $69 billion in damages. Other estimates for Southern California include $49 billion from a 6.9 magnitude quake on the Newport-Inglewood fault; $30 billion from a 7.1 magnitude event along the Palos Verdes fault; $29 billion from a 6.8 event on the Whittier fault; and $24 billion for a 6.7 event on the Verdugo fault.

These figures represent more than just widespread loss. Every dollar reflects damage to the building or structure – in many cases putting severe hardship on the building owner and its occupants.

The USGS determined that 300,000 structures could be damaged in a 7.8 San Andreas earthquake.

That’s as many as one in every 16 buildings in the region. The types of structures determined to be most vulnerable in a quake include: soft-story structures built before 1978, unreinforced masonry buildings, concrete tilt-up structures built before 1994, non-ductile concrete built before 1977 and steel moment frame structures built before 1996.

Protecting buildings makes good business sense for apartment owners.

Not only could a major quake cause costly property damage and trigger lawsuits, loss of income can also occur when commercial property is damaged to the point where it is no longer habitable. This can create severe financial hardship for property owners who not only lose their monthly rental income, but are simultaneously facing the costs of recovery coupled with ongoing monthly payments associated with their original mortgage.

With all the progress made in 2019 to help people prepare and protect themselves in an earthquake, I am expecting 2020 to be a year of even greater resilience. Stay tuned.