High in Quake Vulnerability, San Bernardino Low in Retrofits

Times Staff Writer

While Los Angeles has made major strides in retrofitting old masonry buildings, San Bernardino has lagged significantly despite seismologists' warnings that the city of 200,000 is particularly vulnerable.

San Bernardino lies between two of the state's most active earthquake faults, the San Andreas and San Jacinto. Moreover, much of the city was built above a huge underground water basin. Experts say this loose soil could liquefy in the event of a massive quake, causing buildings to topple.

Like many cities in California, San Bernardino adopted an ordinance requiring owners to retrofit their buildings. But the City Council rescinded it in 1999 under pressure from property owners and business leaders who said it would be too expensive.

"There was nothing in place to compensate property owners," said Esther Estrada, a councilwoman who voted to repeal the ordinance.

Today, about 100 unreinforced masonry buildings in the city lack any form of retrofitting, according to city and state records. By contrast, all but a very few such buildings in Los Angeles and Long Beach have been retrofitted or demolished.

San Bernardino is one of several cities that state officials have identified as lagging in retrofit work. Others include Bakersfield, Ventura, San Luis Obispo, Riverside and Oakland. But officials are especially concerned about the low retrofit rate in San Bernardino, as well as in the nearby cities of Fontana and Ontario, because of their proximity to fault lines.

There's a 1 in 3 chance of a major quake -- as high as magnitude 8 on the San Andreas and 7 on the San Jacinto -- along either of the two faults in the next 30 years, said Cal State San Bernardino professor Sally McGill, who specializes in the region's seismic geology.

"No point in San Bernardino is more than four miles from an active fault," McGill said.

Lucy Jones, scientist in charge of Southern California for the U.S. Geological Survey, is more blunt about the area's prospects during a huge quake on one of those two faults.

"If you're San Bernardino, you're toast," she said. "San Bernardino is on two faults, and those buildings will fall down."

State law requires all cities and counties to conduct an inventory of commercial or government buildings made of unreinforced masonry and develop a plan for retrofitting them. But a provision in the law allows such plans to be as minor as notifying building owners that their properties might be at risk, and requiring them to post a sign saying the building could be hazardous in an earthquake.

Some cities, led by Los Angeles, have made significant progress. L.A. has retrofitted or demolished all but one of its 8,700 unreinforced masonry buildings, city officials said. Long Beach, Pasadena and Glendale have all completed 93% to 99% of theirs. Statewide, the retrofit rate for cities and counties in quake zones is about 69%.

But San Bernardino's difficulty in improving the safety of its buildings underscores a problem in cities around the state.

When San Bernardino rescinded its retrofit ordinance in 1999, the city was reeling from a number of economic blows, said Joseph Lease, the city's chief building official. They included the exodus of the Santa Fe Railway's maintenance yard to Kansas in 1992 and the closure of Norton Air Force Base -- which supported 10,000 jobs -- in 1994.

Enforcing the ordinance, Lease said, would have meant shutting down at least 36 businesses.

"It wasn't in the city's interest to close any more businesses, so they gutted the ordinance," he said.

Of the 136 unreinforced masonry buildings that were in San Bernardino, 19 had been demolished as of last year and 11 had been retrofitted, according to state records.

Some of the structures, which average 7,000 square feet, are vacant, Lease said. The oldest were built in the 1880s, the newest in the 1950s.

Lease believes that many of the buildings will be demolished in the next few decades and that their owners dismiss retrofitting as too costly or an expense they can't make up for in rent.

"If we have [an earthquake] 50 years from now, the gamble paid off," he added. "If it happens tomorrow, we lose."

That point is echoed by merchants who do business in some of the buildings.

"We can't go to big corporate honchos and say we need this much money," said Irene Montano, who owns Mitla Cafe on Mount Vernon Avenue. She said earthquakes in Big Bear and Landers have rattled the family-run Mexican restaurant but haven't cracked walls or shattered dishes.

"If you've lived through all of these, I guess you're in denial: We've gone through a lot of earthquakes and nothing's happened, so we're fine," she said.

"Nobody's in denial that this wasn't a serious risk," Councilwoman Susan Lien Longville said of the decision to repeal the ordinance.

Earthquake experts said the city's thinking was shortsighted.

Jones of the U.S. Geological Survey said some of the brick buildings are held together with mortar so old that it can be scraped out with a car key. The potential losses in a major quake would be staggering, far more than the cost of retrofitting a building, she added.

San Bernardino officials are well aware of the quake risk that comes with their location. Because the city is built on an underground lake, officials have proposed constructing a network of lakes and streams -- including a centerpiece reservoir of more than 40 acres -- to drain millions of gallons of that water. The idea is touted as a way to protect the city during an earthquake and revitalize aging neighborhoods. But the project is also in the planning stages.

Seismic experts worry that the high water table would exacerbate the damage from a temblor. When an earthquake shakes an area with loose, sandy soil, it compacts the sand, much as when a canister of flour is shaken to make more room at the top.

If the sandy area also has a high water table, the water has nowhere to escape, and water pressure skyrockets in a process known as liquefaction, which turns soil into quicksand and can topple buildings.

Jones called San Bernardino a "perfect storm" for such a scenario, with big fault lines, a high water table and old buildings that could fall in a major quake.

There are several ways cities can encourage property owners to retrofit their buildings. Some cities, like Los Angeles, simply required all owners of unreinforced masonry buildings to bring them up to code or demolish them. Other cities require building owners to have their properties evaluated but make retrofitting optional. Still others offer financial incentives or relief from development fees or parking requirements to owners willing to retrofit.

It can cost as little as $25 per square foot to bring some buildings up to code, but those with sensitive or historical architectural features can cost up to $150 per square foot to retrofit, said Fred Turner, chief structural engineer for the California Seismic Safety Commission.

The typical building costs about $400,000 to bring up to code, he said.

Longville, among the City Council members who voted to repeal San Bernardino's retrofit ordinance six years ago, said she'd be willing to revisit the issue now, since property values have risen and the area is more economically stable. But she thought the council in 1999 made the right decision.

"We are Californians. We live with a certain kind of risk," she said.

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