A 4.2-magnitude earthquake last month in L.A. rippled well into Orange County, rousting people from their sleep in the wee hours of the morning.

It was a literal wake-up call. During months of barely detectable seismic activity, many had forgotten the threats earthquakes bring to our region.

The larger the quake, the more devastating the impact.  When buildings are destroyed, people lose their homes, their jobs, and the economy can abruptly grind to a halt.

Leading business and government executive will tell you that we are not prepared for the region’s next major earthquake.  If we don’t begin to act soon, the result will likely be widespread damage and displacement of thousands.

In 2019, the number of people in this state without homes grew by more than 21,300 people, or 16.4% — more than all other states in the nation combined — the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently reported.

Think of how those numbers would be affected if a major earthquake were to strike one or more of our major metropolitan areas. The impacts could be devastating, especially since many of our region’s older, vulnerable structures are home to some of our most at-risk populations.

Affordable housing at risk

Arizona conducted a full-scale earthquake drill in 2018, based on the anticipated scenario that 400,000 Southern California evacuees will go there to seek shelter following the devastation of a massive earthquake.

The reason for this wave of nearly a half million refugees would be simple: The majority of structures identified as at risk of failure in an earthquake represent older, more affordable housing stock or commercial buildings that provide much-needed manufacturing, logistics, and service-related jobs in the communities they serve.

The loss of these structures would bring serious economic disruption, with thousands of people left without a roof over their heads or a job to provide for their families.

We saw this on a small scale when refugees from the 2017 fires in Napa and Sonoma counties were faced with an out-right housing crisis. Those who were displaced, whether they owned homes or rented, faced an increasingly expensive real estate market that had already been seriously squeezed by a limited housing stock – particularly for affordable housing. Following the fires, many of those who lost their homes fell victim to rent-gouging. Families with children doubled-up with neighbors hoping to keep their kids in the same school district.

An even more serious example was seen in 2018 when the Camp fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history, brought near total devastation on the town of Paradise.  The fire 85 people dead in Paradise, 14,000 homes destroyed and tens of thousands of residents displaced.

These dire housing situations could become even more serious concerns following a major quake in more densely populated areas, the Association of Bay Area Governments determined.

If many of a region’s affordable housing units are lost in an earthquake, “a constrained market may drive up the cost of housing even further. Loss or damage of housing that results in increased costs… will likely increase the number of permanently displaced Bay Area residents.”

Resilience benefits everyone

Building safety is essential to a functioning society. It ensures:

Economic stability: Widespread homelessness and resulting joblessness from an earthquake disaster in California would trigger billions in economic loss to communities and the state.

Protection of affordable housing stock: Preserving the limited supply of affordable housing will help to avoid catastrophic displacement and homelessness.

Environmental health: Many seismically vulnerable buildings contain asbestos and lead. Protecting these structures from damage averts widespread toxic exposure for humans and nature. It also avoids overburdening landfills by disposing of the ruins of a major quake.

Ultimately, identifying our most vulnerable buildings and retrofitting them to increase their resiliency protects property owners, businesses, buildings, tenants and the community at large.  That keeps our entire society healthy. And that’s good for everyone.