Building Earthquake Retrofits

California Cities Move Ahead with Building Earthquake Retrofits

Cities in California, including Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and San Francisco, are moving ahead with plans to retrofit buildings to ensure they can withstand a massive earthquake. Earthquake related structural failures in California resulted in more than 65 deaths since 1971, according to reports. Retrofitting older buildings—including concrete and wood buildings—will help protect against preventable fatalities caused by building collapses during earthquakes.

Los Angeles to Retrofit more than 13,000 Apartment Buildings to be Earthquake Ready

At least 13,500 soft-story buildings in Los Angeles will be required to undergo retrofitting. Soft-story buildings are those with weak first floors that can be used as parking spaces. Building earthquake retrofits do not come cheap, however. They come with a cost of up to $130,000 for upgrades, which might be passed on to apartment residents. According to reports, there are no public subsidies to offset the cost of upgrading a building.

Older concrete buildings are also a concern if there aren’t enough steel reinforcing bars to ensure the building stays steady in case of an earthquake. Though not all old concrete buildings are prone to swaying, there is still a risk that some will shift in an earthquake, and that shift could cause a massive and fatal collapse.

When an earthquake hits and (support beams) get sheared, the vertical beams don’t have that shear resistance and then the whole thing can potentially collapse,” said Dr. Ken Hudnut, who works with the U.S. Geological Survey, to ABC News.

The City of Los Angeles has set up a website to inform the public about the retrofits, which include pre-1978 wood-frame soft-story buildings and non-ductile concrete buildings.

The city writes, “The goal of the mandatory retrofit programs, under the ordinance, is to reduce these structural deficiencies and improve the performance of these buildings during earthquakes. Without proper strengthening, these vulnerable buildings may be subjected to structural failure during and/or after an earthquake.”

Owners Have up to 25 Years to Finish Building Earthquake Retrofits

Although the essence of the retrofit is a race against nature—the goal is to get the upgrades completed before another massive earthquake causes massive structural failures and fatalities—building owners have up to 25 years to complete the retrofit. According to the Los Angeles Times, once building owners receive a letter about their building, they have three years to provide a report that confirms whether the building requires retrofitting. If the building is in need of upgrading, the owner has another seven years to file city plans indicating how the building will be either retrofitted or demolished. From that point, they then have 15 years to complete the work.

Chances are [the big earthquake] will happen before that 25-year deadline,” said California seismic safety commissioner Kit Miyamoto. He went on to argue that the deadline for building earthquake retrofits should be much shorter.

“I’m proud that L.A. is leading the effort [on concrete buildings], globally speaking. However, 25 years? Come on…. This needs to be something like a five- to 10-year effort.”

L.A.’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, spoke out in September, urging building owners to get to work on the upgrades now, and some have complied. With so many buildings needing retrofitting, however, it could still be a long time before all are complete, putting residents and workers at risk of catastrophic injuries if a massive earthquake should hit before the work is done.

“To building owners who are waiting—the time is now,” Mayor Garcetti said. “Would you rather have something that is worth nothing because it’s destroyed, and even worse, you lose lives? Or invest now.”

Homeowners are also being encouraged to retrofit their homes, with grants offered to homeowners to help offset the costs.

Earthquake Building Collapse Attorneys Have Spoken Against Waiting to Retrofit for Decades

Waiting instead of performing needed retrofits can cost lives. That’s what happened in the San Francisco Bay area, when the façade of a building collapsed in the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, killing a man on the street below. In the wrongful death lawsuit that Baum Hedlund filed, it was stated that the building owners were warned by engineers that the building could collapse in a “medium to large” “seismic event”, but they failed to retrofit the building or warn tenants of the dangers.

Baum Hedlund structural collapse attorney and mechanical engineer, Paul J. Hedlund, testified before the California Seismic Safety Commission following the 1989 earthquake, where he explained the possibility of further building failures if measures were not taken to correct the problem quickly. Yet, a few short years later the firm represented ten people who were killed or seriously injured in the Northridge Meadows Apartment collapse, which occurred during the Northridge, CA earthquake in 1994.

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