Earthquake Precautions : Montebello Orders Buildings Upgraded

Times Staff Writer

To guard against injuries and loss of life in an earthquake, the City Council approved an emergency ordinance this week that requires most unreinforced masonry buildings to be strengthed or demolished in three years.

It could cost owners hundreds of thousands of dollars to upgrade their buildings to satisfy the ordinance, which was unanimously approved Monday and took effect immediately, an official said.

Single-family homes and residential buildings with no more than four units are not covered by the new law.

The action was prompted by the Oct. 1 earthquake, which measured 5.9 on the Richter scale, and its numerous aftershocks. The quake caused $358 million in property damage in the Los Angeles Basin and claimed seven lives.

No Serious Injuries

City officials estimate Montebello suffered $1.5 million in damage, but no one was seriously injured.

"It was essential to move on it quickly," Mayor Arnold M. Glasman said. "Unfortunately, we don't know when the next earthquake is going to hit."

Officials estimate that there are at least 35 to 50 unreinforced masonry buildings in Montebello that will be affected. But the city has not completed a survey of its 2,000 buildings constructed before 1934, Assistant City Administrator Victor S. Grgas said.

Virtually all Southern California cities toughened their building codes in late 1933 to require that steel reinforcing rods be used in construction to keep cinder-block, brick or other masonry buildings from crumbling in an earthquake. The change was prompted by the Long Beach earthquake of 1933, which measured 6.3 on the Richter scale.

There was no opposition to the ordinance at the council meeting even though building owners will bear the expense of reinforcing their buildings.

The Elks Lodge and Masonic Temple, both on Whittier Boulevard, are made of unreinforced brick, and have been partially closed by the city because of damage from the Oct. 1 quake. Charles Meese, secretary of both Montebello organizations, said it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair or replace the buildings, but he did not fight the council action.

"I could say it's unfair, but tomorrow there could be an earthquake and someone gets killed," Meese said.

The Montebello ordinance complies with state law that requires counties and cities in earthquake-prone areas throughout California to inventory unreinforced masonry buildings by Jan. 1, 1990, and to notify building owners.

But state law does not require cities and counties to compel building owners to reinforce their property.

City Administrator Joseph M. Goeden said Montebello decided to require strengthening or demolition because the city could be liable if someone was injured in a building that officials knew to be dangerous. The Montebello ordinance is modeled after one adopted by Los Angeles in 1981.

Most of Montebello's unreinforced buildings are on Whittier Boulevard or in an industrial sector in the southern part of the city.

Under the ordinance, owners of large unreinforced buildings must have their properties evaluated for structural deficiencies within 90 days. They have two years to complete repairs or demolish the buildings.

The owners of buildings with an occupancy load of fewer than 100 people have one year to complete the structural evaluation, and three years in which to complete construction or demolition.

Grgas estimated that it would cost from $45,000 to $200,000 to strengthen each unreinforced building in the city, depending on its size and the type of repairs needed.

The city is considering various ways to help building owners upgrade their property, including low-interest financing through the city's redevelopment program or an assessment district, Grgas said.

Montebello officials will have to check plans and perform additional inspections in connection with the ordinance, but those duties will be handled by current staff and should cause no additional cost to the city, Grgas said.

The Oct. 1 earthquake left windows shattered and building plaster littering the ground in the commercial zones along Beverly and Whittier boulevards.

Three buildings, including the Elks Lodge and Masonic Temple, remain partially closed because of earthquake damage, and about 17 others need extensive repair, Grgas said. The 500 block of Whittier Boulevard suffered the most damage, and some business owners have voluntarily vacated shops.

City Administrator Goeden said the destruction suffered by nearby Whittier during the earthquake further spurred Montebello officials.

The earthquake struck shortly before 8 a.m. By the time the ground stopped moving, numerous unreinforced brick buildings in the quaint Uptown Whittier area were in pieces. A series of aftershocks caused more damage. Twenty-one of the buildings have been demolished so far, and three more demolitions are pending, an official said. A Whittier senior citizen died of a heart attack attributed to the earthquake and the city suffered an estimated $70 million in damage.

"If it had been at noon, there would have been bodies in the street," Goeden said.

The City Council also voted to apply to the state Earthquake Rehabilitation Assistance Program, which provides loans to owners of residential property that suffered earthquake damage.

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