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The Big One Is on Its Way: Why Aren't We Doing More to Protect Kids?

November 25, 2002|Susan Hough and Lucy Jones | Susan Hough and Lucy Jones are seismologists with the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena.

Geologists have identified 14 large earthquakes on the San Andreas Fault over the last 1,500 years -- just under one every 100 years. The bad news: It's been 145 years since the last one.

The geologic evidence shows significant variation in the time between past events, with some gaps as long as 300-plus years. So we still cannot say when the next one will strike.

The long-term implication of the record is clear, however: Earthquakes are in our future.

As frightening as this sounds, it behooves us to remember that earthquakes don't kill people, buildings kill people. The saying is as true today as when it was first coined decades ago, and the Earth continues to illustrate the point.

A massive magnitude 7.9 earthquake in a sparsely populated part of Alaska recently caused relatively minor damage and few injuries, while much smaller earthquakes in Italy and Pakistan claimed dozens of lives.

In California, we suffer periodic reminders, such as the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake, that even moderate earthquakes can kill. However, we have tended to be confident that our schools are safe. The Field Act, enacted in the aftermath of the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, requires that buildings for elementary and secondary schools and community colleges be built to especially stringent codes and subject to inspection during every step of the building process. In 1990, Field Act provisions were extended to include private schools (charter schools and day-care centers remain exempt). Clearly a tragedy such as the recent one south of Rome, which claimed the lives of 26 children, couldn't happen here. Right?

As helpful as it has been, the Field Act has not solved all our problems. Although its early standards were strict, they were improved over time as we have learned more about earthquakes; so older schools were built to codes less stringent than now required and could be made stronger.

Recent proposals to solve the space problem facing the Los Angeles Unified School District and many other districts call for retrofitting existing structures. Yet many experts wonder whether these buildings would be as safe as a structure whose construction was monitored from the beginning. The state has stepped in and is requiring an expert review of the retrofitting process to evaluate the safety risk. A strict inspection process for retrofitting will be needed.

Even in earthquake-resistant buildings, what happens inside matters when the ground starts to shake. Toppling objects can cause injury and even death. Classrooms are filled with potential hazards, from computers to bookcases and paper cutters. In general, they are secured against earthquake shaking only by particularly conscientious teachers or active parent groups. No law or regulation governs school contents.

Building codes do not apply to existing structures; neither do existing laws provide any direct incentive for retrofitting. Such work is undertaken on single-family homes out of concern for the safety of one's family, although even in those cases it is easy to become complacent as memories of the last big earthquake inevitably fade.

For multi-unit housing, the issues are more complex. This is true not only for low-income housing units, where retrofitting may be prohibitively expensive, but also for higher-end condo and apartment units.

For schools, we need to decide as a society how far we will go to protect our children. The Field Act is a great beginning, but it is not the final answer.

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