VAN NUYS — Employees and patients arrived at the San Fernando Valley's largest public health center Thursday to find that it had been condemned because of earthquake damage--more than a month after three inspections deemed it safe enough to be used as a medical command post during the post-disaster relief effort.
No one was allowed inside the five-story Mid-Valley Comprehensive Health Center in Van Nuys, which was cordoned off with yellow tape. Card tables were set up in the parking lot under the 80-degree sun, from where surprised patients were referred to other Los Angeles County health clinics that offer free or low-cost medical services.
The sudden condemnation came late Wednesday after a fourth inspection revealed four cracked support beams on the top floor of the 34-year-old health center, county officials said. They said the building in the 7500 block of Van Nuys Boulevard will be closed for at least 18 months and possibly as long as two years, displacing 140 employees and forcing patients, who visited the center 93,000 times last year, to seek medical care elsewhere.
"The building has to be able to hold up the weight of the roof and, at this point in time, it's not strong enough," said Jan Pollard, a county spokeswoman.
In the meantime, the county is exploring ways to continue providing medical services in Van Nuys, including renting a nearby building or setting up tents and trailers in the parking lot of the damaged health center.
The belated condemnation angered some county employees, who believed that the building was a safe haven because the county had used it as the local headquarters of the post-quake medical relief effort. From the conference room on the top floor--the same one where the cracked beams were found--county officials deployed doctors and nurses to determine health needs at local parks and shelters.
"We're very concerned that it was a danger to us for all that time," said one county employee, who asked not to be identified. "They should have found out sooner."
County officials said they do not yet know whether the damage was overlooked during the first three inspections or whether it was sustained during the aftershocks that followed the Jan. 17 Northridge quake.
Pollard described the first three inspections as quick checks for obvious damage.
"They looked for things you could see easily, like cracks in the walls," she said. "We were trying to cover all our facilities immediately. The kinds of things they ultimately found aren't the kind of things that you see on a first inspection."
Immediately after the quake, the health center was closed for four days because it had no water and power, and that also gave crews time to clean up water damage from a burst main.
Before reopening Jan. 21, the building was inspected twice--on Jan. 18 and 20--by employees of the county's Internal Services Department, Pollard said. The department then paid $30,000 to have the independent structural engineering firm of Hill International double-check the building and dozens of other county facilities, she said.
All three inspections found no significant structural damage, she said. So employees of the health center, who had either been assigned to other county health clinics or providing some medical services in the building's parking lot, moved back inside.
In February, the fourth inspection was commissioned by the Department of Health Services as part of a complete review of all 44 of the county's remaining clinics and health centers. (A 45th facility, the San Fernando Health Clinic, had been immediately condemned as a result of quake damage and remains closed indefinitely.)
"We just wanted to be doubly sure things were OK," said Toby Staheli, a health department spokeswoman. The reports are also necessary to obtain reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for earthquake damage, she said.
So far, 28 of the clinics have been inspected, with damage found only at the Van Nuys health center, Pollard said. The remaining 16 buildings are in such areas as Long Beach and Hawaiian Gardens, which sustained little earthquake damage, she said.
The fourth inspection of the Van Nuys health center was conducted by the structural engineering firm of Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall, which charged the county $47,500 to check 17 county clinics.
The inspection began Feb. 23. The next day, the engineers noticed a problem.
"We were walking on the roof and it was a little softer than would be expected," said Dick Erickson, an administrator with the company. "We don't know if it wasn't noticed the first few times or not. It could well have been the aftershocks."
The following day, engineers removed part of the ceiling on the fifth floor and found a cracked support beam, Pollard said. Tuesday, they discovered an additional cracked beam after tearing out drywall and ceiling tiles. That discovery caused evacuation of the fifth floor.