Mayor Eric Garcetti
photo by Gary Leonard

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Eighteen months after Mayor Eric Garcetti was sworn in, one unexpected effort is becoming a hallmark of his administration: disaster preparedness, in particular earthquakes. It’s an interesting allocation of resources, in part because it may never pay off politically: If the Big One strikes in the next few years, then there will probably not have been enough time to effect the most significant changes Garcetti wants. If a massive temblor hits after he leaves office, and the city turns out to be well prepared, then he may not be around to take the credit.

All of which indicates that Garcetti may be focusing on earthquake safety because it’s, gasp, the right thing to do for the city. Garcetti’s approach is vastly different than that of previous Los Angeles politicians, who preached preparedness but didn’t order overarching change.

Garcetti continued his attention to the matter last week with the release of a 123-page report that outlines steps the city should take in anticipation of some serious shaking. The paper, dubbed “Resilience by Design,” was powered by Dr. Lucy Jones, the prominent United States Geological Survey seismologist. Garcetti brought her aboard as a special consultant in January.

“Resilience by Design” is thoughtful, thought-provoking and, in some instances, scary. It notes that the devastating 1994 Northridge Earthquake was, by potential local standards, fairly small, a magnitude 6.7 quake that lasted seven seconds. The report ponders an earthquake generated by the San Andreas Fault that reaches magnitude 7.8 and causes the ground to shake for two full minutes.

Among other things, the report inspires questions, particularly in terms of paying for the retrofitting of numerous older buildings. More on that below.

We like that Garcetti and Jones are focusing not only on keeping buildings standing, but on ensuring that water delivery and telecommunications remain functional in the wake of a large quake. It’s wise to remind people that the damage would not be limited to the people injured and the buildings destroyed in the initial event. There would be an ensuing severe effect on regional spending: Downed structures and broken infrastructure will result in shuttered businesses and people out of jobs, potentially crippling the local economy for months or years.

Garcetti and Jones smartly propose steps such as developing an alternative system for water delivery. If the principal pipes break, this will be vital to extinguish the fires that follow big earthquakes. It’s a similar approach to the recommendation to create a solar-powered Wi-Fi network and fortify cell phone towers; the ability to communicate after a disaster will help everyone from emergency responders to family members who are separated.

The biggest component of “Resilience by Design” involves retrofitting buildings, and this will be crucial in Downtown Los Angeles, which contains the region’s greatest concentration of old structures. Here Garcetti is taking a tough approach: His plan would mandate, not recommend, seismic strengthening in some older properties.

We agree with his aim to require “soft-first-story” buildings (those with large open spaces on the ground floor, such as garages) constructed before 1980 to be retrofitted within five years. The document notes that two-thirds of the 49,000 housing units lost during the 1994 Northridge earthquake involved this kind of construction. The worst damage occurs when upper floors “pancake” the ground level.

The second element, and one that pertains more to Downtown, concerns retrofitting “non-ductile reinforced concrete buildings” erected before 1980. These structures, which can be warehouses, office buildings and schools, among other things, have a limited capacity to absorb ground shaking, the report noted. “Resilience by Design” goes on to cite data saying there are 1,400 of these buildings in the city, and that thousands of people could be in them, and thus at risk, if a quake hits during the workday. 

Garcetti’s proposal would require that people who own these buildings have a structural engineer evaluate the property and for a retrofit plan to be prepared within five years. The owner would then have 25 years to complete the work.

We understand that this is difficult and expensive, but a 30-year timeframe verges on being pointless. There is too much risk over that extended period. We would prefer to see a shorter window.

That leads to cost, and any building owner will rightly raise a ruckus over the price of a government-required retrofitting. That’s why Garcetti and other city leaders must be just as aggressive in helping property owners find money as they are in urging fixes. We want Garcetti and his team to lobby the feds and the state for grants and low-interest loans with long payback plans, and to take other steps to ease the financial burden. The easier it is for people to swallow the cost, the more likely they are to move quickly.

As has often been said, the Big One is coming, and it’s a matter of “when,” not “if.” We’re glad to see strong city leadership on this topic. 

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014