All parts of the country face natural disasters of one kind or another. Most—hurricanes, blizzards and tornados—come with some advance notice, even if it’s brief. But an earthquake strikes without warning and can range from being a mild surprise to a major shakedown that can leave buildings in ruins and families without hope.
To help prepare for the next high-magnitude quake, the California Assembly passed AB 2681 in May. The bill would require the state’s cities to identify buildings at risk of being damaged by an earthquake. The municipalities must place that information in a statewide database of vulnerable structures.
The bill was written by Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian, who represents the central and southern San Fernando Valley. It’s one of two bills intended to prepare cities for a major earthquake. A related bill strengthens building codes.
“Mapping out our seismic vulnerabilities allows local municipalities to be better prepared when an earthquake hits,” Nazarian said. “We deserve a stronger, safer California that can bounce back quickly after the ‘big one’hits, with limited loss of life and property.”
San Francisco and Los Angeles— both of which have suffered extreme infrastructure damage after major earthquakes—have taken it upon themselves to index their weaker structures. But the bill is geared toward smaller cities.
Maureen Tamuri, the City of Calabasas director of community development, said the city doesn’t have a list of at-risk buildings, but she said that after the 1994 Northridge earthquake the Calabasas city staff surveyed damage to the community to make note of potential problem areas in case of a future earthquake.
The city’s general plan maps out areas at risk of landslides and liquefaction, which occurs when an earthquake releases water into the soil and compromises its solidity.
“We have buildings we want to assess, as a primary assessment after earthquakes,” Tamuri said, “For example, buildings that have high occupancy, like a theater, we want to make sure they’re OK after an earthquake. (But) people spend a lot of time focused on structural issues in buildings, but let’s face it, a file cabinet can kill you, too. If it’s not correctly bolted (to the wall), that could be a life-threatening situation. You have both structural and nonstructural components, and nonstructural ones killed a lot of people in the (1994) earthquake.”
AB 2681 passed the Assembly and is now under consideration by the state Senate. A representative from Nazarian’s office said that because the bill mandates that cities undertake additional work, the state would have to provide the funding to do so. The California Office of Emergency Services is in charge of finding that money, and if it can’t, cities won’t have to abide by the bill.
The bill doesn’t include any mandates about retrofitting vulnerable buildings. However, a 2017 report by the National Institute of Building Sciences found that every dollar spent prepping a building would save $6 in repairing the same building after an earthquake.
Another reason for the legislation is concern for California’s small businesses. The U.S. Small Business Administration reported that in 2016 small companies accounted for 99 percent of California’s businesses. When a major earthquake strikes, it’s unclear how many of them would be damaged and able to recover.
The U.S. Geological Survey projected the effects of a 7.8 magnitude earthquake along the San Andreas Fault in 2008 and found the damage would cause up to $200 billion in economic losses. In comparison, the 1994 Northridge quake had a magnitude of 6.7 and caused an estimated $20 billion in damage.
Tamuri said the Calabasas City Council recently heard a presentation from Lucy Jones, a seismologist and founder of the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, which works to help communities become more earthquake-ready.
“She spoke about the importance of making the city resilient so that after the earthquake your residents don’t leave and your businesses don’t leave and you’re stuck high and dry,” Tamuri said.
“I think that while there’s always a rush to reinforce a structure, the end result of only looking at it from that perspective can sometimes be a less effective way to approach the problem, which is really multifaceted in nature.”