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Is God to Blame for Earthquake Damage, or Are People at Fault? : Aftermath: The answer transcends theology because millions of dollars are at stake. Battle lines are being drawn among government, property owners and tenants.

January 27, 1994|GORDON DILLOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a question that may be raised often in the coming weeks and months: Was the destruction caused by last week's earthquake an act of God? Or was certain damage actually caused by imperfect acts of humankind?

It's not merely a theological question. From Chatsworth to Pasadena to San Pedro, millions of dollars could be riding on the answer, as lawyers and property owners and tenants battle over who is responsible for the losses caused by the earthquake.

One of the opening skirmishes in that battle may be fought at King Harbor Marina in Redondo Beach, where the collapse of a small spit of man-made land caused an estimated $2.5 million in damages. The marina operators say the city should pay for all the damage, including $500,000 or so for an asphalt parking lot and small buildings that the marina owners lost when the soil beneath the parking lot was turned into mush by the "liquefaction" phenomenon and the parking lot collapsed.

City officials, on the other hand, say in effect that the damage was God's fault, not theirs, and if the marina owners want to be reimbursed, well, maybe they should take it up with Him.

"The question is, if the subsoil (which is owned by the city) goes bad, who's responsible?" says Les Guthrie of Marina Cove Ltd., the marina owners.

Redondo Beach Harbor Director Ray Koke disagrees.

"You start doing it that way, and you're going to have 500 million people suing each other for acts of God," Koke says.

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The issue has its roots in the 1950s, when Redondo Beach decided to build a harbor and marina site just south of Hermosa Beach. In the middle of the marina basin the harbor developers built a 130-foot by 1,300-foot peninsula, called a "mole," to which the marina's docks were attached. Mole "B" had rock and concrete sides and was filled in with sandy soil.

After the marina site was completed, it was leased to a private company that built surface improvements, including an asphalt parking lot for boat owners and a laundry and restrooms on the mole for boat owners' convenience.

The total cost of the project, which opened in 1961, was about $30 million.

The mole and the marina had no damage from the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, the 1987 Whittier earthquake or the Landers earthquake of 1992. But even though the epicenter was 28 miles away, when the Northridge earthquake hit, the King Harbor Marina rocked and rolled violently.

"It was an experience, being in an earthquake in a boat," said Ernest Wegener, 61, who lives aboard his 25-foot sailboat "Sagitta" at the marina. "All the masts were just whipping left and right."

When it was over, the bulkhead or wall on the south side of Mole B was broken, and half a dozen boats were damaged, most only slightly. Meanwhile, a 500-foot section of the parking lot on top of the mole collapsed, sending some of the dozens of parked cars in the lot into a mucky chasm about six feet deep. The two laundry-restrooms were structurally damaged.

The "liquefaction" phenomenon that apparently caused the collapse occurs when loosely packed, fine-grained soil saturated with water is hit with shock waves, causing the soil to become like jelly. Areas of unstable soil abound in Los Angeles County, particularly along the coast from Santa Monica to Seal Beach. To combat the problem, most structures in the beach communities are built on pilings; the new Redondo Beach Pier now under construction, for example, has some pilings 120 feet long--about 10 stories high--that are driven down through the sand to bedrock.

The city intends to repair its portion of the marina damage--the mole walls and the lost subsoil--at a cost of about $2 million. Harbor Director Koke said he hopes permanent reconstruction will begin within two months, and that repairs will be complete in six months.

As for the parking lot, Koke said he believes that since the mole complied with standards in effect in 1961--before anyone had ever heard of liquefaction--the city shouldn't have to replace the parking lot, because its destruction was an act of God.

Redondo Beach City Atty. Jerry Goddard said it would be premature to comment on the matter. He added, however, "All things are negotiable."

Although he declined to comment on the specifics of the King Harbor case, USC law professor George Lefcoe said that while liability clauses in contracts vary, "An earthquake is a wonderful example of an act of God." In most cases in California, he said, as long as structures complied with building codes in effect when they were built, the owners are not liable for acts of God.

Meanwhile, marina owner Guthrie says he'll repair the damage now and see who pays for it later.

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