Experts check everything from soil stability to plywood quality during the construction of new homes, but even after dozens of inspections, they cannot guarantee that a building will withstand major earthquakes.
In a dozen presentations designed to reassure Thousand Oaks residents, local structural engineers, tile manufacturers and contractors described the myriad steps they must take before certifying a home as stable.
"We have a tremendous number of safety factors built in here," architect Gary Heathcote said during a three-hour public forum before the City Council.
"But expecting buildings to come through absolutely unscathed . . . is beyond what a building can accomplish," Heathcote said. "Each seismic occurrence has its own thumbprint. You can't find a single quake and say, 'Ah, that's how this building will always react.' "
Even as the experts testified, the council chamber vibrated slightly as though from a minor aftershock late Tuesday night.
Caltech and the National Earthquake Information Service had no information about a late-evening tremor in Thousand Oaks, but council members said the shaking jolted them as they sat at the dais.
The swaying did not faze speaker David Carpenter, however, who continued his testimony on improving the business community's earthquake preparedness.
By purchasing backup power generators and ice-making machines for food refrigeration, business owners could be ready to respond to a major disaster, he said. Residents, too, should be ready to endure up to three days on their own: Pack an emergency kit and keep a supply of cash and checks on hand.
But tips for future quakes did not much interest Michele Relkin, who was focused on the damage wreaked by January's disaster.
Struggling not to cry, Relkin pleaded with the council to help her finance an estimated $75,000 in damage to her Woodside Drive home. The Relkin home, perhaps the hardest-hit residence in Thousand Oaks, shook so much that walls shifted, the fireplace crumbled and all the windows blew out.
City staff has so far helped Relkin navigate the maze of red tape to receive federal and state grants. And next week, the council will consider freeing redevelopment money and federal block-grant funds to aid the Relkin family and others whose homes are severely damaged.
Normally, redevelopment housing money can be used only to assist low- and moderate-income families. But in the disaster's aftermath, city staff can now open the coffers to help any resident, regardless of income.
"We ought to bend over backward to do whatever we can to help people, even if that means having to bend or stretch a few rules," Councilman Alex Fiore said.
The City Council will also consider using $501,000 in federal block-grant money to rebuild walls on private property that tumbled or tilted during the Northridge quake.
After listening to two hours of testimony from residents and experts, council members agreed to confer with homeowners living in a few tracts that experienced widespread problems, including collapsed chimneys and damaged roofs.
Because a dozen or more homes built by the same contractors suffered similar losses, city staff will investigate potential legal action against the developer or builder.
"We want to know, how did these type of defects manage to evade detection?" asked Susan Gulbrandsen, whose home on Cedarwood Street sat in one of the damaged pockets. "I want some answers."
In response, the city's director of building and safety, Barry Branagan, noted that Thousand Oaks inspectors perform only spot checks and cannot evaluate every home in every tract.
With fireplaces, for example, city inspectors examine the base to make sure it's attached to the foundation, then check to make sure that the chimney is supported by four steel bars. After the builder meets those tests, the city usually stands back, Branagan said.
"Basically, what we've done in the past is trusted that these people know what they're doing," Branagan said. "The city does not warranty, insure or otherwise guarantee the plans or the construction work."