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L.A. quake program could require visits to 29,000 pre-1978 apartments

Individual inspections may be the only way to identify which apartments are 'soft-story' wood frame buildings at risk of collapse in an earthquake.

October 08, 2013|By Rosanna Xia
  • The Northridge Meadows apartment building, where 16 people died during the Northridge earthquake in 1994, is an example of a "soft story" building.
The Northridge Meadows apartment building, where 16 people died during… (Los Angeles Times )

Los Angeles city building officials have concluded that inspectors will most likely have to visit all of the city's 29,000 older apartment buildings to determine which ones are a certain type of wood-framed building particularly vulnerable to collapse during a major earthquake.

City staff is developing a plan to winnow out these so-called soft-story wood-frame buildings among the 29,000 apartment buildings across the city that were constructed before 1978, Ifa Kashefi, chief of the engineering bureau at the Department of Building and Safety, told a group of structural engineers and stakeholders at the annual Buildings at Risk conference.

Officials have long known about the risk of soft-story buildings, particularly after the Northridge earthquake in 1994, when about 200 of these structures were seriously damaged or destroyed, and 16 people died in the Northridge Meadows apartment complex.

Soft-story structures often are built over carports and held up with slender columns, leaving the upper floors to crash into ground-floor apartments during shaking. No city data exists to easily identify which structures are wood-framed soft-story, Kashefi said.

The city's housing department was able to provide addresses of the 29,000 apartment buildings in the city built before 1978, Kashefi said, and city inspectors would need to go to each address and determine whether a building should be included in this inventory.

A motion, introduced in July by Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, asks building officials to present a proposal for how the city would be able to identify wood-frame soft-story residential buildings, with at least two stories and at least five units, built before 1978.

"We have a choice. We can either be prepared, or not be prepared," said LaBonge, who was also on Tuesday's panel. "It's about our safety."

LaBonge's motion came after San Francisco passed a landmark earthquake safety ordinance earlier this year, which will require about 3,000 wooden apartment buildings to be strengthened. LaBonge said he expects a report from Los Angeles' Department of Building and Safety in November.

rosanna.xia@latimes.com

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