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State's quake codes also mean safer decks

August 24, 2003|June Casagrande | Special to The Times

Thirteen people died and at least 57 were injured when a porch collapsed in Chicago in June. A week later, 12 were injured when a deck gave way in Gauley Bridge, W.Va. On Aug. 9, a woman died when a deck collapsed in New York City.

Could it happen here?

The bad news is that no area is immune from such tragedies. In fact, in April 2000, three people were hurt when the balcony of a Hollywood Hills home collapsed during a party. The good news is that California's earthquake building standards have the fringe benefit of helping safeguard against such collapses.

"California construction has a tendency to be quite good, and a lot of that has to do with concern over mitigating the effects of earthquakes," said Paul Armstrong, spokesman for the Los Angeles region of the International Code Council, the nonprofit agency that sets building standards.

National building codes for decks, porches and balconies require them to withstand at least 40 pounds per square foot. As a rule, that means that a balcony packed with partygoers should be safe as long as there's enough room to allow people to move around.

In California, earthquake reinforcements often give these standards a bit of a boost, but nationwide codes still serve as the official guidelines here.

But these rules assure safety only in a perfect world. When structures are not maintained or built to code, a well-attended get-together can turn deadly.

The Chicago collapse may have happened because the apartment building's balconies were constructed illegally, according to a lawsuit filed by the city. Poor, possibly illegal, construction combined with rain might have caused the New York collapse, according to reports.

The best safeguard is vigilance. In the wake of this summer's tragedies, building officials across the country are trying to educate the public about ways to prevent problems before structures crumble. The key is to spot the signs of decay before a collapse.

Residents should inspect their decks and balconies at least twice a year, officials recommend. If there's any doubt about a structure's safety, a licensed inspector should check it out.

Split or rotting wood is a serious red flag. Missing or damaged nails, screws, anchors, support beams and planks also point toward danger. Any signs of mold, termites, rust, dry rot, water damage or even pigeon damage can spell an unsafe deck or balcony. If a porch or deck moves when a person walks on it or if a guardrail is loose, a collapse could result.

"With stucco balconies, one of the things to look for is cracks or separation from the building to the deck," said John Burckle, principal residential inspector for the city of Newport Beach. On the Fourth of July, when West Newport Beach streets and rental homes are overrun with revelers, the city sends out one of its staff inspectors to accompany police officers on patrol. When they spot a crowded balcony or porch, the inspector checks the structure for signs of damage that could turn deadly.

"In Newport Beach during the Fourth of July holiday, people tend to huddle on balconies and roofs to look at the scene, so nearly every year we send inspectors out along with police," said Jay Elbettar, who heads up the city's building department. Elbettar said that there haven't been any collapses in Newport Beach that he knows of, and the city hopes to keep it that way.

"I encourage people while they're annually cleaning gutters and doing other home maintenance that they look under balconies and decks to see if there are any cracks or discoloration, if there's any mold growing, if there's any evidence that water is seeping through," Elbettar said.

Coastal areas can be especially problematic because of damage caused by salt air and other elements, Armstrong said. In these areas, rusty metal connectors pose one of the biggest hazards.

Most serious collapses happen during social events, when people gather on a deck, porch or balcony after one of the danger signs has been overlooked.

In the Chicago case, though, it appears there were no warning signs. In that collapse in the upscale Lincoln Park neighborhood, about 50 young people were packed onto a third-floor balcony during a party when the structure gave way. Most of the people who died were not on the third floor. They were on the balconies immediately below, a grim warning to anyone that if an upstairs neighbor has an overloaded porch, it might be best to stay indoors.

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