I was superintendent of building and general manager of the Department of Building and Safety in Los Angeles from 1940 until my retirement in 1961. During the 1950s Mexico City had an earthquake almost equal in intensity to the one it had recently. Many buildings were demolished, thousands of buildings were badly damaged, many people were killed and injured. The damage was very severe and widespread. The City of Los Angeles requested me to go to Mexico City and investigate the damage to building construction, the enforcement of building regulations and render a report on the entire disaster.
I found a complete lack of enforcement of building regulations. Plans were not checked by the city. Construction in the field was not checked by the city. Builders, honest and dishonest, architects, engineers could do just as they pleased. To me the field seemed wide open for making the fast buck.
I was in Mexico City approximately one week. During that time the Mexico City Chamber of Commerce gave a luncheon in my honor. They said to me, “Senor, what has happened to this city is terrible. We don’t know what to do. We want to stop this. It can’t go on anymore. We must do something. What do you recommend?”
I told them that there appeared to be a complete lack of enforcement of building regulations by the city. Building Department construction plans were not checked by the city and the construction in the field was not inspected. The methods of construction in the field were antiquated, pitiful and woefully inadequate. “You need to have honesty in your local building department and professional performance before you can ever correct the situation,” I said. “If you don’t correct the situation, I can predict that you will have another disaster that probably will be even more severe than the one you have just had.”
At this Chamber of Commerce luncheon the prominent people of Mexico City attended, the lawyers, the bankers, the industrialists, the top echelon, so they all heard my message, but apparently it went in one ear and out of the other.
Since 1936, the building regulations of the City of Los Angeles have included provisions that required all structures to be designed and constructed to resist earthquakes. The buildings built in Los Angeles have the advantage of these earthquake ordinances. The ordinances are not concocted by the department alone, but with the help of the engineering profession, and I would say that if a severe earthquake comes, we are in a good position to have a minimum of damage.
Some of our older buildings built before 1936 have some weakness, but in the 1950s the Department of Building and Safety went through the entire city and required all parapet walls on the older buildings to be either removed or strengthened, all appendages hanging over the street to be removed or strengthened, and all floors and roofs to be tied into the walls. This is where in the older buildings most of the casualties occur, in the collapse of parapets and appendages into the streets and sidewalks.
The newer buildings in Los Angeles should give a good account of themselves in a quake. No collapse, no severe damage. The older buildings built before 1936 will not collapse, but could sustain damage, even though we have strengthened them.
Over the last 50 years the Department of Building and Safety has been able to operate in a professional engineering manner. The employees, including the superintendent of building, are professional engineers, and inspectors and are selected through the Civil Service system. This system has a tremendous advantage, producing a competent and honest department, free from political appointees and pressure. When department heads are appointed by elected officials, the department gradually deteriorates in quality and honesty.
We have a good system, let us keep it that way.
GILBERT E. MORRIS