Eleven Years After Northridge, Resolve Fades Over Quake Safety

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Efforts to bolster earthquake safety in California have hit roadblocks at the state and local levels as memories of major temblors fade and lawmakers and business owners balk at the cost of retrofitting structures.

Last month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed funds for the California Seismic Safety Commission, an independent panel charged with reviewing and recommending legislation and policy on earthquake safety. State employees were doing similar work, he said.

An article in Saturday's Section A said the state Legislature had recently extended the deadline for hospitals to conform to seismic safety regulations by 12 years. In fact, there were two bills to extend the deadline. One that gave hospitals an additional five years to meet regulations has been signed into law. A second, to extend the deadline for some hospitals by 12 years, recently passed the state Senate but is under consideration in the Assembly.

The veto was the latest of several setbacks in Sacramento for seismic safety advocates. Lawmakers rejected a bond issue to make state government buildings earthquake-resistant as well as funding to train community response teams to help neighbors after a temblor.

State regulators gave hospital owners an extra 12 years to ensure that their buildings would not collapse and kill people in a major quake, after healthcare companies said they could not afford to do the work.

In San Francisco, seismic safety officials are fighting to revive a survey of how many quake-vulnerable houses, apartments and other buildings remain in the city. The survey was killed two years ago after representatives of then-Mayor Willie Brown questioned the cost. A similar proposal in Los Angeles also failed, amid complaints from property owners.

And a measure to assess how many schools could be at risk in a quake passed the Legislature only after it was amended so that the information would not be made public -- or even sent to school districts unless they requested it. Legislators and school officials said they were concerned that worried parents otherwise would pull their children out of classes.

"We have our heads in the sand about this issue as if nothing is going to happen," said state Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-San Jose), who proposed the bill to count vulnerable schools. To date, only about 5% of the state's school districts have requested the information.

Part of the problem, advocates say, is that Californians haven't experienced a devastating earthquake in 11 years. By contrast, between 1987 and 1994, California recorded three quakes -- Whittier Narrows, Loma Prieta and Northridge -- that among them killed more than 100 people and caused billions of dollars in damage.

Those temblors prompted an aggressive and expensive effort to improve earthquake safety. California has spent $3.2 billion fixing thousands of bridges and freeway overpasses to better withstand quakes since the 1989 Loma Prieta temblor. Thousands of unreinforced masonry buildings were retrofitted, and the city of Los Angeles required homeowners to install shut-off valves to gas lines after weak valves caused fires in the wake of the Northridge quake.

Experts said the response fits a predictable pattern in the annals of California seismic policy: Large quakes lead to improvements, and then, after a few years, interest in further improvements fades until after the next deadly temblor.

At the core of the resistance to many major seismic policy initiatives is money -- or the lack of it. Experts say it would cost billions to retrofit every vulnerable building in the state -- not to mention tunnels, oil and gas lines and the levees that hold back water from several rivers and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

A prime example is the debate over improving hospitals. Throughout the state, more than 900 hospitals do not meet seismic safety standards. Many do not meet even what engineers call "life-safe" standards -- the minimum needed to guarantee that if a building sustains heavy damage, people inside won't be killed.

After the Northridge quake caused severe damage to a Kaiser Permanente hospital in the San Fernando Valley, the Legislature voted to require that hospital owners make their buildings life-safe by 2008.

But after hospital companies objected to the cost, the Legislature extended the deadline. State Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley), who represents the area hardest hit by the Northridge quake, said legislators faced an uncomfortable dilemma.

"At the same time we're further and further away from an earthquake, we're deeper and deeper into a health crisis," Alarcon said.

Although he pushed for the retrofit requirement after Northridge, and even sits on the Seismic Safety Commission, Alarcon said he is now more concerned that hospitals might have to close if they don't upgrade their buildings.

"I'm not as staunch as I was 10 years ago about requiring hospitals to invest massive amounts of money which makes them close their doors," Alarcon said. "I am much more open-minded today."

Safety advocates are gearing up for a fight over the future of the Seismic Safety Commission. The panel is funded through a fee levied on property insurance policies but is scheduled to end in 2007 unless the Legislature extends it.

In vetoing the funding bill, Schwarzenegger cited the conclusions of his California Performance Review team, which said that the commission's work was duplicative of the job done by other state agencies.

Spokeswoman Katherine McLane said that the governor was committed to improving seismic safety, and had set aside $2.3 million for stand-alone earthquake safety programs in his budgets. But he wants to study whether the commission is necessary, she said. Seismologists and other public safety officials strongly disagree with the notion that the commission's work is duplicative, saying the body had been at the forefront of much of the quake safety regulations and preparedness plans over the last two decades. (Just last year, said Lucy Jones, a scientist in charge of the U.S. Geological Survey and a Schwarzenegger appointee to the commission, she and her fellow panelists argued successfully against a bill that would have removed many seismic safety standards from community colleges.)

One of the highest hurdles in recent years has been to win approval to count the number of buildings in need of retrofitting.

Last year, Los Angeles Councilman Greig Smith tried unsuccessfully to get the city to count the number of potentially dangerous concrete buildings. "The chambers of commerce rise up," said Smith, a Republican.

Safety advocates say property owners worry that it will be expensive to retrofit older buildings -- and fear liability or a loss of tenants if their buildings are pinpointed as quake-prone.

"Knowledge brings responsibilities," said Laurence Kornfield, chief building inspector for San Francisco. Kornfield said he expects resistance as he tries to revive a 4-year-old program -- suspended in 2003 -- to evaluate quake-prone buildings in that city.

Delays in such programs show a basic flaw in how the state approaches earthquake preparedness, safety advocates say.

"Nobody likes to plan for the future," said Assemblywoman Carol Liu (D-Pasadena), whose bill to extend the life of the Seismic Safety Commission was vetoed by the governor. "Nobody wants to put money upfront for something that might happen in the future."