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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Foot-Dragging on Seismic Safety

January 31, 1994

In the two weeks since the Northridge earthquake sent Orange County a wake-up call on seismic safety, it has become increasingly clear just how fortunate the county was to escape with so little damage. A review of past warnings and of failures to take corrective action reveals a cavalier attitude among officials. Earthquakes in Southern California are so frequent there is no excuse for governments to be caught ill-prepared.

Last week the state Seismic Safety Commission found that Orange County and the cities of Garden Grove, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente missed a state deadline to come up with plans to reduce the risk to unreinforced buildings.

A 1986 state directive gave localities until 1990 to produce the plans. It did not require actual retrofitting, merely an inventory of old masonry buildings that had not been reinforced. It was up to local governments to decide how to reduce the risks. That does not sound like an onerous requirement, and, indeed, most municipalities met it. Orange County officials claimed they met it, too, or at least thought they did; however, a closer look shows they missed the mark.

The county has admitted that a 1989 letter to the state about seismic safety promised updates but that none ever were provided. In addition, the letter referred to a plan that never went before the Board of Supervisors and eventually was scrapped.

One county official said that although there was concern over seismic safety, other demands received higher priority in years of tight budgets and cutbacks.

Failure to act amounts to a form of Russian roulette, and if the chamber was empty two weeks ago, Orange County never can know when it might be loaded. After a 1989 county report showed 14 firehouses in the county at high risk in an earthquake, some sensible steps were taken to remedy deficiencies. But much more must be done.

The new state report speaks of 72 buildings, 15 of them owned by the county, being at risk. Some are old fire stations, others are restaurants or shops.

A Garden Grove official said his city missed the state deadline because it wanted first to draw up a plan for retrofitting that did not burden business owners unduly. That's a good idea. But taking eight years to come up with a plan, and missing the deadline by more than three years, is unacceptable.

Many city and county officials contend that whatever dangers there might be are not life-threatening. But this attitude represents a kind of gambling, and the death toll of more than 50 in the Northridge earthquake shows how high are the stakes.

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