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Earthquake experts seize momentum

Times Staff Writers

A major effort to seismically retrofit hospitals has been repeatedly pushed back in recent years over concerns about costs. A campaign in Los Angeles to create a list of concrete buildings that would be vulnerable to major shaking faltered. An effort to better track high-risk buildings in San Francisco also stalled.

“Any time you don’t have an earthquake for a long time, peoples’ concerns go elsewhere,” said Kate Hutton, a staff seismologist at Caltech.

That’s why Hutton and her fellow Caltech seismologist Lucy Jones have worked long hours since Tuesday’s Chino Hills earthquake, battling fatigue as they try to turn the temblor into “a teachable moment.”

They knew the world’s attention would quickly shift from Los Angeles, and the scientists were determined to use the media glare to promote safety awareness.

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They had given 100 interviews by noon and were hoping to do more before the cameras moved on to the next story. Hutton had had only four hours’ sleep and was losing her voice from doing so many media interviews.

“The attention will certainly go away,” Hutton said. “We can only hope to get a little shake once in a while to remind us.”

It was far from the Big One, but seismologists and some elected leaders are hoping the 5.4 Chino Hills temblor might serve as a “political” earthquake, ending a losing streak that quake-safety experts have experienced in recent years.

Tuesday’s temblor caused little damage, but it was the most sizable quake to hit a metropolitan part of California since the much larger and destructive 1994 Northridge quake.

Quake experts believe the lull in seismic activity in heavily populated areas has hurt their efforts to get stronger quake building standards.

Add to that a general human tendency to have an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” attitude toward disasters, which leaves residents less prepared for a major temblor.

According to Candysse Miller, executive director of the Insurance Information Network, only about 12% of California homeowners have earthquake insurance, compared with 32% at the time of the Northridge quake.

Since that earthquake -- the most damaging and costly in L.A.'s history -- major overhauls and retrofittings of thousands of buildings and bridges have undeniably made the state much safer, experts say.

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But over the last few years, quake-safety advocates have lost several battles in Sacramento.

Experts said the most ambitious efforts to buffer infrastructure -- from schools to hospitals -- against a devastating quake have stalled because of costs.

That, along with the long stretch between significant urban quakes, has bred a lack of urgency about embarking on certain initiatives, experts say.

In 2004, L.A. City Councilman Greig Smith tried to get the city to count the number of potentially dangerous “non-ductile reinforced” concrete buildings, most of which were built before the state instituted stricter standards.

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That motion quietly died in committee.

Smith said he was not surprised. Without a large earthquake to jolt the collective consciousness, there was no sense of urgency, he said.

He has since reintroduced that motion, as well as proposals to place city emergency information on a single website, require gasoline stations to have backup emergency generators in case of a quake, and provide all city vehicles with emergency kits and fire extinguishers.

Smith said that in the last year there has been a lot of progress in talking with large downtown building owners and the real estate industry about the need to do something about potentially dangerous concrete buildings.

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Quake experts say an earthquake the size of the destructive Northridge earthquake -- or larger -- is a virtual certainty to hit Southern California in the next 30 years. And the region is overdue for a massive 7.5 or larger quake.

Researchers who released a statewide earthquake forecast in April said they hoped the findings would be used to improve seismic codes and boost emergency response plans.

Richard McCarthy, executive director of the Seismic Safety Commission in Sacramento, said the more realistic upside of an earthquake the size of the Chino Hills temblor is that it could help spark efforts to change the culture of how people react to the shaking.

He pointed to the number of people who swamped the 911 system with needless calls as an example of an area where people’s behavior needs to change.

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“This was a good pilot project, a good pilot earthquake to keep us sharp,” McCarthy said. But he said that with the state in a fiscal deficit, a budget that has still not been signed and “other societal needs,” it is unlikely the most expensive and broad efforts would be seriously jostled to fruition by a relatively meager quake.

State Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-San Jose) said the state should have already done more to make sure vulnerable hospitals were properly retrofitted.

Late last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger approved rules allowing many hospitals to bypass extremely costly building reinforcements the state ordered after the Northridge quake.

Some financially struggling hospitals would be allowed to operate until 2020, even though the state says they are most likely to crumple during a major seismic event.

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The move was supported by hospital executives who said the rules would ease financial demands on the struggling industry. But it was criticized by other groups, including the California Nurses Assn., which said that deferring repairs was too dangerous.

The original deadline of 2008 had already been extended to 2013 for all but 10 hospitals. Lawmakers built in another extension, until 2015, for hospitals that start construction by 2013. But many hospitals have resisted strengthening their buildings because they also face a 2030 deadline to completely reconstruct them.

Alquist said that despite the attention, she thinks the Chino Hills earthquake was far too modest to provoke real policy changes.

“It takes something significant to get a lot of people’s attention, and I think that’s truly unfortunate. I think it’s sad,” Alquist said. “I think we have our head in the sand. We’re going to have a ‘Big One.’ The only question is when.”

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hector.becerra@latimes.com

david.pierson@latimes.com


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