Prompting ‘New Frontier’ for Earthquake Safety

The Los Angeles Times recently proclaimed the start of a “New Frontier” for earthquake safety: a phenomenon kicked off by the city of Santa Monica, which this month is expected to adopt the most comprehensive seismic retrofit ordinance in the nation.

Santa Monica’s law is much more comprehensive than the ordinance adopted in 2015 by the city of L.A. But perhaps even more notable is the fact that there are untold numbers of cities poised to do the same. It’s only a matter of time.

Famed seismologist Dr. Lucy Jones told the Times it is remarkable to see how the political winds have changed for elected officials considering seismic retrofit laws.

“There are dozens of cities curious at looking at this,” she said. “People are starting to recognize how necessary this is.”

The City of Los Angeles retrofit law, which took effect last year, requires the stabilization of some 15,000 pre- 1978 wood-frame, soft-story buildings and non-ductile concrete buildings. Soft-story structures have parking or open space on the ground floor, and apartment or office units built above. Non-ductile buildings are pre-1977 concrete structures with a roof and/or floor supported by a concrete wall or concrete column.

Santa Monica’s ordinance, which received an initial and unanimous vote of the City Council on Feb. 14, Includes not only soft-story and non-ductile concrete buildings, but unreinforced masonry and steel moment frame structures. The council is scheduled to return for a final vote of adoption sometime this month, and the law will take effect 30 days after it is adopted.

Slow-Growing Trend That Has Taken Off

San Francisco, Berkeley and other Bay Area cities were among the first to mandate earthquake retrofits for softstory buildings. That was in 2013. Los Angeles sparked the trend in Southern California with the nation’s most sweeping seismic retrofit law, adopted in 2015.

Since then, the movement to retrofit buildings at risk of collapse in a large earthquake has taken a major step forward as cities in both Northern and Southern California start planning for retrofit laws of their own. A short list of cities that have adopted or are considering earthquake retrofit laws includes: San Francisco, Berkeley, Richmond, Fremont, San Jose, Alameda, Santa Clara County, Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and West Hollywood.

The Structural Engineers Association of California estimates there may be as many as 100,000 buildings in Southern California alone facing retrofit mandates as other cities and counties consider adopting retrofit laws like those already enacted in other parts of the state.

Why It’s Important to Cities

In 1994, Southern California suffered one of its deadliest and most destructive earthquakes: a 6.7 magnitude jolt in Northridge that killed more than 60, injured more than 9,000 and caused as much as $25 billion in widespread damage, most notably from the collapse of freeway overpasses and buildings, including the Northridge Meadows Apartments which crushed 16 residents and flattened cars in the ground-level parking tucked under the soft-story structure.

Five years earlier, a magnitude 6.9 earthquake shook Loma Prieta and the surrounding Bay Area to the core: freeways crumpled, storefronts toppled, and soft-story buildings fell, taking the lives of 63 people and causing some $10 billion in damage.

Here in California, we know: It’s just a matter of time until the next Big One strikes.

Preventing lives from being lost is without a doubt the largest motivating factor in implementing these laws, but city officials are also extremely concerned about the potential chaos that could ensue if another major quake hits California and we aren’t ready for it.

The Northridge Example

The massive numbers of dead and injured resulting from the Northridge quake was shocking. Hospitals were overloaded, and as many as 125,000 people were temporarily or permanently displaced because of damage to their houses or apartments, according to the Interagency Committee on Seismic Safety in Construction headed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Power and water were unavailable in many areas for several days and many streets and freeways were impassable.

The quake created a situation of chaos that cities now are wanting to do their utmost to avoid.

“When somebody walks into a building in the city of Beverly Hills, no matter when they’re there, I want them to feel totally safe,” Councilwoman Nancy Krasne was quoted in the Times as saying. “I think everyone needs to feel safe when they go to sleep.”

Cost Benefits of a Retrofit

You can’t put a price on the cost of death or injury, and the loss of property resulting from earthquake damage can be much more than what a building is worth.

That alone should be enough to prompt owners of at-risk buildings to look into making their structures safer. In many cases, these buildings represent a person’s total assets and retirement plan. Studies show it pays to protect that.

Researchers at Caltech recently performed a general benefit-cost analysis on several types of residential structures including a soft-story apartment building. They found that for every dollar spent on retrofitting, owners could expect to save up to $7 in repairs, and their calculations did not include the possibility of death or injury or the loss of contents within the structures themselves.

Retrofits help to guard against liability, claims of negligence and are beneficial for insurance purposes, too. In fact, many insurance carriers no longer insure softstory structures built before 1978 against earthquakes. Carriers are becoming more discriminating and will either stop coverage or increase premiums to compensate for the added risk.

Fortunately, many of the cities that have adopted or are considering retrofit ordinances have put financing models in place to help owners cover the costs of the retrofits.

These programs are designed to help. Contact your city or feel free to give us a call at 323-582-2465 for information on one of our upcoming AAGLA-supported earthquake retrofit seminars if you have any questions.