Shaking It Up

Shaking It Up

In the wake of damaging reports about Los Angeles’ unpreparedness for the next Big One, Mayor Eric Garcetti in December proposed an ambitious new earthquake plan that, if passed, would require owners to retrofit thousands of wood frame and concrete buildings.

The plan, led by the mayor’s Science Advisor for Seismic Safety, Dr. Lucy Jones, would specifically target “soft-first-story” buildings and “non-ductile reinforced concrete” buildings built before 1980. It also recommends shoring up the city’s water supply, developing an alternative firefighting water supply, facilitating stronger pipes and aqueducts, and upgrading the city’s telecommunications and power networks to prevent dangerous disruptions.

“Instead of being complacent and then jarred into action by a devastating earthquake, LA is moving forward proactively,” said Garcetti in a statement. The city’s last major earthquake legislation came in the 1980s, requiring retrofits of vulnerable brick buildings.

According to Ashley Atkinson, the Mayor’s planning and housing specialist, the plan, which would involve mayoral executive orders and ordinances passed by City Council, would impact about 19,000 soft story buildings and about 1,500 reinforced concrete ones. Much could be completed within five years, but the overall changes could take up to 25 years to carry out.

An essential part of the scheme would be a new voluntary rating system, similar to the USGBC’s LEED system, judging a building’s earthquake preparedness. Created by the non-profit U.S. Resiliency Council, the system would help officials determine action and encourage owners to improve safety.

Current codes, said Dr. Jones, are designed to protect occupants’ lives, not to ensure that buildings will be usable after an earthquake. That could lead to financial devastation if thousands of buildings are compromised, she said.  “We could end up with half of our buildings not being able to be used right after an earthquake. How do we keep our economy going in that sort of situation?”

Outside of political questions, the biggest issue regarding implementation would be cost. According to the LA Times, the cost of retrofitting a modest wooden apartment building ranges from $60,000 to $130,000. According to the New York Times, the cost of retrofitting some buildings could easily exceed $1 million each.

The mayor has no formal plan to aid property owners with payment, but he offered the prospect of tax breaks (such as a 5-year business-tax exemption), access to private lenders, the waiving of permit fees, and CEQA exemptions as possible aids. As for improving public infrastructure, Garcetti has proposed a statewide “Seismic Resilience Bond Measure” that could be introduced in a future election.

According to insurer Swiss Re, Los Angeles faces greater risks of catastrophic loss from earthquakes than any other city in the world except Tokyo, Jakarta, and Manila. As California State Geologist John Parrish told AN, “This ain’t Kansas.”

Some business leaders have argued that the plan will be too expensive without substantial financial assistance, but Jones insisted that “the discussion seems to be about how to pay for it and not whether to do it.”