More Must Be Learned About Building Safety : Discrepancies in quake damage show the city must prepare a database of information on structural conditions
The Valley Briefing that appeared in this section last Sunday was entitled “Tallying the Aid.” Its main purpose was to assess, by ZIP code area in the San Fernando Valley, the amounts of earthquake recovery grants and loans from the federal government and the widely varying distribution of the same.
Using a map of the Valley as a guide, for example, the Briefing pointed out that Granada Hills and Chatsworth, and not the epicenter, received the most aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration.
But the Briefing contained another category: year-end estimates of the damage caused by the quake. If you noticed something wildly out of sync about those damage numbers, you’re not alone. In every ZIP code, the damage estimate was merely a fraction of the monetary amounts that have been passed out in loans and grants. In ZIP code area 91344, for example, in Granada Hills, the damage figure was less than $45 million. The FEMA grants and SBA loan amounts that have been committed to help folks recover in that ZIP code amounted to more than $235 million, or more than five times the damage amount.
In ZIP code 91411, between Sepulveda Boulevard and Woodman Avenue, just north and east of the 101 and 405 freeways, the damage estimate was $4.7 million. The FEMA and SBA aid committed to the same area was more than $26 million. In area code 91303, south of Roscoe Boulevard and west of De Soto Avenue, the damage amount was placed at less than $19 million. The federal aid assigned to it amounted to more than $41 million.
The same sorts of discrepancies were found in every ZIP code: aid amounts that seemed to greatly exceed damage amounts. What gives?
Actually, the Briefing figures represent the so-called tip of the iceberg of a problem that the city must find a way to address as it prepares for a series of temblors in the 7.2 to 7.6 range, or the long anticipated Big One. It’s a shortcoming shared by many cities around the nation, but not many other urban centers have been built on land that is splintered by several dozen earthquake faults.
* Inspections intended for a more urgent purpose.
Ask the city’s Building and Safety Department for damage estimates, and the aforementioned figures are the ones you will receive. But the initial inspections were conducted on an urgent basis and weren’t designed to tally all costs that might later surface. The goal, said Nick Delli Quadri, senior structural engineer for the department, was to determine which buildings were unsafe and had to be red-tagged so that they wouldn’t be occupied.
A secondary purpose, Delli Quadri said, was to do brief, exterior-only inspections that attempted to give an indication of what might be needed to fix the building. That’s why the damage estimates are so much lower than reality, and Delli Quadri used his own Granada Hills home as an example. He originally believed that repair costs would be about $6,000. It turned out to be about 10 times higher than that. The costs soared when the interior of his home was closely examined, and the real costs of replacing all the stucco and drywall was discovered.
The same is true for most, if not all, of the buildings damaged in the Northridge quake.
* The tip of the iceberg.
Even the SBA’s commensurately higher damage estimates, which were much more thorough and closer to reality because the primary purpose there was to determine the appropriate size of the loan amount, carry caveats. The SBA counts only the owners who applied for SBA loans. And those figures don’t include those who relied on FEMA grants, or on private insurance, or their own family money or personal savings to cover some or all of their repair costs.
But this goes deeper than the importance of damage assessments that narrow the detail to a parcel-by-parcel accounting. Los Angeles will need a much more detailed and automated database of the structures on all of its 840,000 parcels if it is to accurately assess what needs to be done to prepare for major seismic activity in the future.
As U. S. Housing and Urban Development Department Secretary Henry Cisneros indicated in a report this week on the enormous costs involved in fully preparing Los Angeles for future earthquakes, such an effort demands reliable knowledge of the local building stock. “Further research on the seismic performance of various types of construction and on new building materials and methods is needed in order to strengthen building codes and encourage improved design and construction,” the HUD report says. But Cisneros says that the city does not now possess an accurate assessment of the number or construction type of the buildings within its boundaries. Such an inventory is badly needed.
Cisneros added that data involving 840,000 parcels of land can be managed and analyzed efficiently only with an automated system.
* The inspection deficit.
Secretary Cisneros also reiterated concerns already expressed by California seismic experts: that there has been a troubling degradation, at the state and local level, in the capacity to inspect buildings and in the ability to conduct those inspections accurately.
Seismic experts have already pointed out that we would have had less damage in the Northridge quake if more structures had truly conformed to building code standards.
* How to build the database.
Some of this detailed inspection work has already been done, by the SBA, for example, and by FEMA. There ought to be some way to protect the privacy rights of individual owners and still allow for that information to be passed on to city databases.
Also, Cisneros points out that other cities have employed their fire departments to do such work. Their fire safety inspections are very detailed and could also be used to help the city build a better seismic safety database.
The goal is to have a source of information that allows planners and elected officials to identify priorities. That will give L.A. a better chance of surviving the Big One.