When the long-predicted major earthquake rumbles through Los Angeles, toppling buildings and spreading terror, relatively few people in the San Fernando Valley will be among the thousands to die, city building records suggest.
For its expected good fortune, the Valley is indebted to the newness of its buildings. It has few of the large, aging brick or block buildings that officials predict will collapse in a major quake and account for most of the lost lives.
Of the city's 800 large buildings of unreinforced masonry, only 19 are in the Valley, and only one of those--Van Nuys Airport Office Building--is likely to have more than 100 people in it at a time.
By contrast, downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood and the Wilshire and the Los Angeles Westlake areas are dotted with huge, unreinforced-masonry buildings. Until reinforcing is completed, those sections of the city could be laid to waste by a quake similar to the one that recently hit Mexico City, city officials say.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 17, 1985 Valley Edition Metro Part 2 Page 21 Column 3 Zones Desk 2 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
The status of earthquake bracing of a building at 6350 Van Nuys Blvd. in Van Nuys was incorrectly listed in a chart in the Nov. 10 edition of The Times. According to the Los Angeles Building and Safety Department, full bracing has been completed on the building.
Fortify or Demolish
In 1981, after more than five years of studies and postponements, the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance requiring that the 7,876 unreinforced-masonry buildings in the city be fortified to withstand a major temblor or be demolished.
The council acted after a blue-ribbon panel reported that, without reinforcing of pre-1933 buildings, a temblor registering 7 or more on the Richter scale would kill 8,500 people and injure 34,000 in Los Angeles. More than 80% of the deaths would be caused by the collapse of brick buildings, the report said.
Most of these buildings, all constructed before state standards were stiffened in 1933, have walls of brick or block without any reinforcing steel to hold them together or to bind them to the roof, floors or adjacent walls. Engineers say that makes the buildings vulnerable to disintegration during the horizontal shaking that accompanies earthquakes.
In the 1971 Sylmar quake, the report said, of the 58 people who died, 47 were in the Veterans Administration Hospital in Sylmar, an unreinforced-masonry building that collapsed. The hospital was built in 1926 and was being renovated as late as the summer of 1970.
'A Bunch of Bricks'
Such unreinforced walls were described as "just a bunch of bricks piled up loosely with some sand in between" by Robert J. Williams, former city building superintendent and chairman of the committee that drafted the city's ordinance.
Northwest Valley Councilman Hal Bernson, who has sponsored several earthquake-safety ordinances, said that unreinforced-masonry buildings are a "clear and present hazard that we cannot responsibly ignore."
Since the ordinance was passed, building officials have concentrated enforcement efforts on the 800 pre-1933 buildings that are large enough to have up to 100 occupants at one time.
Reinforcement work has been ordered for about half of those buildings.
In the Valley, reinforcement is complete at two large previously unreinforced buildings--a commercial building at 6350 Van Nuys Blvd. in Van Nuys and a Sun Valley hardware store at 8157 San Fernando Road.
17 High-Risk Buildings
Of the 17 high-risk buildings remaining in the Valley, bracing work has been ordered for all but six. And city inspectors have recently visited two others, a first step toward issuing an order to begin work.
The city's ordinance permits building owners to undertake reinforcement in two stages--initially anchoring the walls to the building and later strengthening walls, floors and roof and tying them together.
All buildings must be fully reinforced by 1992.
Allen Asakura, chief of the city's earthquake safety division, said anchoring the walls to the building, an option selected by nearly half of the owners, "provides some safety in that it assures the walls won't fall away from the building. But it's not really a substitute for full reinforcing."
While most owners of unreinforced buildings are aware that heavy repair costs await them, the bill for reinforcing has been a severe jolt to some.
Glen Forsch, manager of Roscoe Hardware in Sun Valley, said fully reinforcing one of his buildings, which measures 10,000 square feet, cost $200,000. While he also remodeled portions of the building, the $20-per-square-foot cost was far above the $5 or $6 city officials estimated when the ordinance was approved.
He said new construction would cost about $60 a square foot.
The 1971 quake, which registered 6.5 on the Richter scale, "broke one window here, and we were maybe 10 miles from the epicenter," he said. "I interpret that to mean we are pretty quake-proof here."
Forsch, who recently was served a compliance order for another of the interconnected buildings that make up his hardware store, objects to the reinforcing process "because there don't seem to be any standards. With old buildings, there are too many subjective decisions made by the inspectors."