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Prepare Now or Be Sorry Later : HUD quake report urges immediate local action

The Big One--an earthquake with an almost unimaginable destructive force--is predicted for Los Angeles, maybe 30 years from now, maybe next year. It could crush and topple buildings throughout the basin. We must prepare now, even though the cost would be great.

That grim warning, in a new report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, challenges the state, the county, the city and all property owners to make recommended improvements without delay--and without waiting for Washington to write the check.

HUD Secretary Henry G. Cisneros urged preventive measures that go beyond the construction standards that were in place before the 1994 Northridge quake. However, he acknowledged that the federal government isn’t likely to pay for all that’s needed.

Los Angeles County public hospitals and health care centers require $2.3 billion for seismic upgrades, the report estimated. The repairs would both safeguard patients at the time of the quake and improve the chances of people hospitalized for quake injuries.

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If school had been in session during the Northridge earthquake, the HUD report said, “thousands of children would have been injured or killed by falling debris, furniture and lighting.”

The most dangerous schools are those built before the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, a disaster that prompted the California Legislature to toughen state standards. Work on the old schools in the L.A. district is estimated to cost $786 million. Our children are worth it.

Wood-frame houses and apartments or buildings made of unreinforced masonry also are potentially dangerous. The three-story Northridge Meadows apartment complex, which collapsed in the earthquake, is an example. Retrofitting would cost from $200 million to $400 million; repairs after a major quake would cost $3 billion, HUD said. By far, prevention is cheaper than rebuilding after a disaster.

Hillside homes require bracing to prevent collapse or a deadly slide down a steep grade. Manufactured homes, also known as mobile homes, require similar shoring to keep them from slipping off their foundations. This retrofit could cost from $60 million to $250 million or more, according to the report.

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Washington, to the credit of the Clinton Administration and Congress, poured more than $11 billion into the Northridge recovery. More federal aid is needed, and the state should shoulder more of this burden. The California Legislature could help by imposing mandatory earthquake safety standards on property owners, who could be encouraged to comply through incentives such as discounts on homeowner insurance, tax credits, low-interest loans and government grants.

When it comes to quakes, the ounce-of-prevention adage was never truer.


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