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Lessons of October

One year ago today, at 7:42 in the morning, Southern Californians were reminded with a jolt that they could no longer deny the need to prepare for earthquakes. Eight people died and $368 million in damages occurred in the quake centered in Whittier. Some people got the dramatic message, and so preparedness efforts already under way made further progress. But not enough people acted. California is not yet as prepared for disaster as it should be.

Two areas demand action: steps that can be taken beforehand to reduce damage or injuries and moves to improve communications, shelter, health care and other services after an earthquake. In addition to government and public-service efforts, individuals should also consider their needs whether they are at home, work or school or on the road at the time of a major quake. There’s probably not a Southern Californian who hasn’t put off something related to earthquakes--whether it’s strapping up the water heater, outlining a survival plan to the family or stashing old shoes and granola bars in the car. Do it today.

State law urges local governments to identify old and potentially hazardous masonry buildings and to adopt plans to shore up those buildings. It’s strictly voluntary. A majority of cities and counties now have at least taken inventory. But only 19 cities and one county out of 353 local governments in the state’s most seismically active region have adopted mitigation plans.

A Los Angeles city ordinance requires that such buildings be reinforced or torn down. There are still 2,666 of an original 8,000 targeted buildings whose owners have not obtained permits for reinforcement work. Another 2,400 buildings do have such permits, and work has been finished on 1,345 buildings. The city says that 817 buildings have been demolished, including 100 that contained 3,362 dwelling units. Those buildings offered comparatively low-rent housing, increasing urgent pressures to create more apartments.

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The California Legislature took quick action on gaps in disaster-relief programs in a special session after the October earthquake. But then its efforts largely fizzled. It failed to pass a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Dominic L. Cortese (D-San Jose) that would have given state tax credits to owners trying to reinforce these old buildings. And it failed to place on the ballot a $350-million bond issue backed by Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) to improve the safety of state buildings. Both measures still deserve passage. One item that did pass and that the voters approved in June was $80 million in bonds to provide loans to owners of apartment buildings to rehabilitate about 12,500 units of housing most at risk during quakes.

Last October’s earthquake highlighted new problems, like how toxic spills might affect rescue work, and old ones, like how agencies could best communicate. The fall ballot in Los Angeles contains a measure, Proposition N, for new communications equipment for firefighters and paramedics. That should help not only with fighting fires in high-rise buildings but also with earthquake rescues.

The state Seismic Safety Commission remains at work on its five-year program to reduce hazards. Health planners, for example, have surveyed hospital buildings and found that more than 90%--those constructed before tougher seismic-safety codes were enacted--would suffer significant damage during a severe earthquake. The planners are sizing up their next move--looking most closely at low-cost, short-term steps.

Hospital capacity may not have been tested last year, but shelters were. Southern California’s Red Cross chapters learned that not all of the 9,806 people who would ultimately need shelter sought it immediately. The numbers grew in the days after the earthquake as building inspectors told people that their homes weren’t safe and as immigrants from countries that had suffered devastating earthquakes became increasingly alarmed during aftershocks.

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The Red Cross also found that, because of these fears, its volunteers and workers from city and county agencies had to do more than tell people that it was safe to return home. In many cases they went with them and arranged meetings for them with building authorities at their apartments. “It took a special outreach effort,” a Red Cross official said.

People have learned that they must rely first on themselves and ultimately on public agencies when the next major earthquake occurs. Few can say they are as ready as they could be. Oct. 1, 1987, was a test that has not been fully passed.


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