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FEMA Promises Rebuilding Aid, but CSUN Wary

March 12, 1994|JOHN CHANDLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — In an early sign that Cal State Northridge may avoid past earthquake recovery pitfalls, federal officials are promising to help pay for upgrading many CSUN buildings to modern seismic standards instead of authorizing only "patch-and-paint" repairs.

Although the latter was a common response to past disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency earlier this month adopted a new repair policy for public facilities damaged in the Northridge earthquake.

CSUN officials, however, admit to being wary of the "new" FEMA and its promises. That is because the "old" federal agency left a legacy of still-shuttered buildings and bureaucratic repair disputes at other California universities damaged in past earthquakes.

Four and a half years after the Loma Prieta quake, repairs have yet to start on some closed buildings at Stanford and San Francisco State universities. And it took Cal State Los Angeles five frustrating years to reopen the final building that was closed by the 1987 Whittier Narrows quake.

"Our frustration came as we really could never rely on any agreement with FEMA as things came together and then fell apart," said Valerie Veronin, Stanford's acting director of facilities project management. "I can write a book after all this is said and done," she said.

Nearly two months have passed since the 6.8-magnitude temblor battered Southern California on Jan. 17. With work nearly completed on a mini-city of portable classrooms erected to replace still-closed permanent buildings, CSUN officials are beginning to focus on rebuilding.

But FEMA officials insist that the agency has changed under the Clinton Administration. If they deliver on their promises, the rebuilding at Northridge could be relatively smooth and quick, requiring perhaps a couple of years. If the task becomes a replay of the past, the campus faces a long ordeal.

CSUN President Blenda J. Wilson said it is still too early to tell which path lies ahead. Thus far, she and other campus officials have nothing but praise for FEMA's initial response. But Wilson added: "We haven't gotten to the nuts and bolts and dollars and cents of our claim yet, either."

CSUN officials are still tallying the costs of their quake damage and may not have an official figure for some time. But they have made unofficial estimates of $250 million to $350 million, which would amount to the costliest disaster ever for an American university.

How FEMA treats CSUN is crucial to its recovery because the federal government, under a Clinton decree, has promised to pay for 90% of the damage to public facilities. The state is responsible for the other 10%. In past disasters such as Loma Prieta, the federal share was only 75%.

Privately, some CSUN officials predict that major disputes are unlikely, at least partly because they would reflect poorly on Clinton. Those officials say the President has made a commitment to CSUN, at least in a political sense, telephoning the school when classes resumed Feb. 14 and sending Vice President Al Gore to visit shortly thereafter.

The FEMA promise to help pay for seismic upgrades at the Northridge campus also is an important first sign. The past disputes at other universities often have centered on whether damaged old buildings should be simply patched up or more fully fixed to meet current codes, officials said.

For the CSUN community, that is not just a bureaucratic question but perhaps one of life and death. Most of the major concrete buildings on the 353-acre campus were built in the late 1950s and 1960s--generations ago in terms of how resistant buildings are to collapse and earthquake damage in general.

Post-earthquake repair methods have been an open question in the past because most building codes, including the one that governs state facilities such as CSUN, generally do not spell out seismic-retrofit guidelines, except for much older, un-reinforced masonry structures.

Earlier this month, however, FEMA and state Office of Emergency Services officials signed an agreement laying down minimum seismic repair standards for public buildings. Top FEMA officials said their agency has never before made such a commitment, calling it a reflection of FEMA's new approach.

The agreement obliges FEMA to pay to help bring an entire building up to current code if the expected cost of structural repairs is at least 50% of the building's replacement cost. A public agency also could choose demolition and get 90% of the replacement value for a new building.

If the repair cost is between 11% and 49%, FEMA will help pay to bring at least the damaged portions of a building up to current seismic standards, although engineers said such partial work often must be broadened to the entire building. Only if the damage is 10% or less would old standards be allowed.

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