Lessons of the Quakes

Californians have looked toward Mexico these recent days with compassion for friends, relatives and an entire nation affected by devastating earthquakes. Emotions are heightened by apprehension--the knowledge that it can happen here, too, in this land of grinding tectonic plates. California officials probably will need months to learn the lessons of Mexico’s tragedy of shattered buildings and crumbled hopes.

The vital challenges here fall into two categories: How to improve preparedness for the earthquake that will surely come, and how to be sure that the response afterward will be effective. The preparations today can save lives when the disaster occurs.

There are particular problems. Los Angeles, for example, still has 7,000 pre-1934 buildings of unreinforced-masonry construction that have not complied with a 1981 ordinance requiring strengthening. About 900 buildings have complied, and 60 others have been demolished. Dismayed that more action has not been taken, Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson has just asked that the 2,000 of these buildings that have mixed commercial and residential use be notified within the next year to start compliance within another year.

Los Angeles is one of the few communities, along with Long Beach and Palo Alto, that even has a plan to deal with these older buildings. Yet attempts to require communities to identify such potentially unsafe buildings and to deal with them fail consistently in the California Legislature. The lawmakers will have another chance to act next year on a measure sponsored by Sen. Alfred E. Alquist (D-San Jose).

Engineers are already in Mexico City studying how different forms of construction fared in the earthquakes. Mexico City has sophisticated building codes; the question remains how well they have been enforced. Many buildings did not collapse. Do they share any common characteristics?


Others will examine what programs the Mexicans had prepared to coordinate emergency responses, and how well they worked. Time and again rescue workers have cried out for heavier equipment to speed their task. Is that equipment available here? The break in long-distance telephone service from Mexico City has heightened families’ anguish over many days. Telephone officials believe that the long-distance system here is less vulnerable to total shutdown, but no one can predict what will happen with the next massive quake. Emergency services must include mobile radio or satellite communication systems.

The outpouring of humanitarian aid, of people wanting to go help in Mexico, has been remarkable. California planners may have calculated which official agencies will do what tasks should there be a comparable earthquake here. They must also consider who will coordinate the volunteers.

Paul Flores, the head of the Southern California Earthquake Preparedness Project, has already gone to Mexico City. L. Thomas Tobin, executive director of the Seismic Safety Commission, has requested state travel money to visit Mexico City as soon as feasible; he should be sent along with officials from Caltrans, emergency medical services and other agencies so that they can report back on areas in which California could increase its preparation.

The attention that private citizens and public figures are giving to earthquake safety today provides a rare opportunity for actions that could save lives tomorrow.