Five years after the City of Los Angeles enacted what was at the time the nation’s most sweeping earthquake retrofit law, progress toward resilience has taken a resounding leap forward.
A “safety revolution” is spreading along our streets and back alleys, with steel frames and strong walls fortifying buildings that were once at risk of failing in a major earthquake, the Los Angeles Times reported.
More than a quarter of the 11,400 soft-story structures identified as vulnerable have been retrofitted, up from 5% the year before.
It’s a trend that shows promise for the future of our region – building owners taking action to save lives, protect the equity in their investments and doing their part to preserve the quality of life in our neighborhoods, from the Westside to the Valley and into Central L.A. and beyond.
In areas dominated by soft-story structures – typically apartment buildings with tuck-under parking on the ground floor and dwelling units above – there is a marked effort to retrofit. The Palms neighborhood on the Westside, the Times noted, contains more than 700 of these structures holding more than 9,000 residential units. About 30% of them have been retrofitted so far.
To view these numbers for yourself, visit the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety website at
Why is this important?
The threat of a major earthquake looms large in 2020 and presents major concerns for California.
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.
Southern California had its own “wake up call” as a whopping 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck in July on the heels of a 6.4 temblor in Ridgecrest. Fortunately, these quakes hit well outside the urban area.
And lurking just beneath the harbor in Long Beach is a newly awakened giant: the Wilmington Blind-Thrust fault, long dormant but now revealing the ability to 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.
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. 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 the 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 earthquake along the Puente Hills fault would bring an estimated $69 billion in damages. Other calculations 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 would be damaged in a 7.8 San Andreas earthquake.
That’s 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, 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 or 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 lose their monthly rental income, bear the high costs of repairs and recovery, and must pay the ongoing monthly costs associated with their original mortgage.
With all the progress made in 2019 to help people prepare and protect themselves during earthquakes, I am expecting 2020 to show even greater movement towards resilience.