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Quake Lessons

October 07, 1987

Nature is jolting Southern Californians into thinking harder about the next big quake. Tragic as the deaths were last week, and widespread as the damage was, lessons of the past prevented a disaster of far greater magnitude. The lesson of the present is that California's government, businesses and citizens must do still more--and move faster.

Sacramento reacted quickly after the devastating Mexico City earthquake of 1985. The Legislature passed and the governor signed two key bills. One called for a survey of unreinforced-masonry buildings in the major earthquake danger zone from Eureka in the north to Oceanside in the south, notification of owners of potentially hazardous buildings and development of a program to correct them. Communities must report to the state by 1990 on their progress.

The other measure, the comprehensive California Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act, established a five-year program coordinated by the state Seismic Safety Commission. Good progress has been made on some of its projects. But, in light of new seismic-safety knowledge, the state still needs to recheck the condition of public schools and hospitals already covered by earthquake legislation. For example, only about 10% of the state's hospitals have been built since tougher codes were written. Communities need to know how many hospital beds they could count on in a major quake, and need to correct the problem if the figure is too low.

The state has not developed a comprehensive policy for dealing with the effect of a major earthquake on the California economy. What would happen to the ability of the state and its businesses to do business in the event of a major quake affecting naval shipyards, aircraft companies, farms and the vast entertainment industry? Layoffs on a small scale last week give only a hint of larger problems that may lie in the future.

By all accounts, local county and city emergency teams responded well in recent days. When there is a bigger earthquake, the teams may be spread too thin. Communities will turn to the state then, and the state also needs to examine now whether its Office of Emergency Services is truly up to the job.

There were no surprises this time. Many of the buildings that collapsed were old unreinforced-masonry buildings that people knew could collapse. Efforts are well under way in Los Angeles to shore up those buildings; work is finished on 1,000 of them. But there are still about 3,300 of an original 8,000 targeted buildings whose owners have taken no protective steps.

The city says that about 700 buildings have been demolished, including 95 that contained about 3,100 dwelling units. Many of those buildings were in low-income neighborhoods in and around the central city. The people who lost apartments or rooms because of this move only add to the critical housing shortage with which the Los Angeles housing department, Community Redevelopment Agency and Single Room Occupancy Corp. are already grappling.

Even before the recent temblors, Assemblyman Dominic L. Cortese (D-San Jose) was pushing a bill (AB 2150) to grant state tax credits as an incentive to speed work on buildings that still are vulnerable to earthquakes. Federal tax incentives would be appropriate as well.

State Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) has also introduced a bill (SB 88) that would ask voters to approve a a $350-million bond issue for work to improve earthquake safety in state buildings, especially on high-risk state university campuses. That would add to the state's bond burden, but it represents less than half the $800 million that the seismic safety commission estimates must be spent to get state buildings into shape to ride out a major earthquake. Nowhere is the need more vividly demonstrated that on the Cal State L.A. campus, where a young woman was killed by a block of concrete that toppled from a garage.

Neighborhoods also need to learn how better to help themselves after a major shake. Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson will reintroduce a plan next week for the Fire Department to train 15 volunteer teams, one for each council district, on appropriate emergency responses should people be on their own for three to five days. This pilot program would cost the city $1.8 million. It could save far more in the long run.

Major earthquakes strike fear in people because of their immense physical force, a force beyond control. What people can control, however, is the way in which they prepare for earthquakes. That is the most important lesson of all.

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