Earthquake preparedness is finally embraced by L.A. movers and shakers

From left, L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson, Councilman Tom LaBonge, Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilman Mitchell Englander join seismologist Lucy Jones during a news conference to announce a new city quake-preparedness effort.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Do I have special powers? people have asked.

Not that I’m consciously aware of.

Yes, it’s true that in my Sunday column I noted we were certain to have more earthquakes and ought to do more to prepare for them, as San Francisco has. And the next day — boom! — a 4.4 centered in Encino reminded us we have no batteries in the flashlight and can’t find it anyway.

But no, I can’t predict the time and location of earthquakes any more than I can tell you when your broken sidewalk will get fixed.

Here, though, is my best guess:

It will take us at least 15 years to fix streets and sidewalks, based on this week’s news out of Los Angeles City Hall. So, of course, the Big One will hit just as the last patch of wet concrete dries, buckling everything from Wilmington to Woodland Hills.


But before we get to those sidewalks, let’s talk a bit more about earthquake preparation, which, if we follow the San Francisco model, is going to cost both landlords and tenants a few bucks. And then I’ll jump back to street repair, which is going to cost everyone a penny or two.

As detailed in October by Times reporters Ron Lin, Rosanna Xia and Doug Smith, San Francisco was rightfully alarmed into doing something after the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, which killed 63 people and injured nearly 4,000. The city established the Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety.

Los Angeles was equally alarmed by the 1994 Northridge quake, which killed 57 people, injured 5,000 and caused $20 billion worth of damage. But instead of drafting a plan to be better prepared the next time, city officials went into a deep sleep.

So now San Francisco is in the third year of a 30-year action plan outlining every aspect of preparedness, beginning with structural design standards, the retrofitting of wood-frame buildings and an examination of every private school structure in the city.

And Los Angeles?

We’re starting from scratch after being shamed into doing something by The Times’ earthquake series.

San Francisco officials had their own years-long glitches, delays and disputes — much like the ones Los Angeles is now experiencing. But they kept working it out, even as building owners and tenants were at odds over who should pay for retrofitting.


“We stayed focused on the human element, on protecting people’s lives and property,” said Jason Elliott, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s legislative director.

It helped that Elliott and Lee had both focused on seismic safety during former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s administration. When Lee stepped into Newsom’s job in 2011, he’d already studied the science, met with engineers and talked financing with bankers.

In 2012, Lee hired Patrick Otellini to be his earthquake safety director. Otellini had been a private consultant who worked with a mayoral task force on the elevated risk of wood buildings, and now the city is prepped to begin shoring up those dwellings. Building owners have to secure retrofit funding on their own or through a city program, but they can pass along costs over a 20-year period to tenants, unless the tenants are low-income.

Nobody loved the idea of shelling out money, San Francisco officials told me. But the mayor called a roundup of building owners and the bankers who finance their businesses and encouraged them to choose safety over risk, protecting lives and their own financial self-interest at the same time.

“They get it,” Otellini said, adding that in many cases, the owners had thrown “their life savings into buildings” that could be demolished in a big quake.

The good news is that Otellini’s brain is being picked by Lucy Jones, the seismologist Mayor Eric Garcetti picked to develop a preparedness plan for L.A. Otellini said he and his team have also been in contact with Deputy L.A. Mayor Eileen Decker and Councilman Tom LaBonge, sharing information that might help Los Angeles get cracking — and how’s that for a segue?

Yes, cracking. Not long after Monday’s quake hit, an aftershock was recorded when City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana dropped a hefty report at the feet of city officials. With an anticipated $242-million budget deficit, the report notes, there’s just no money for fixing our Swiss cheese streets and roller coaster sidewalks.

So it could be a long, hot summer for the mayor, who has called for a phaseout of the gross receipts tax, which brings in $470 million a year, but keeps telling us he’s somehow going to reboot basic services.

Santana has proposed that employees pitch in more for healthcare and forego raises to help close the budget gap, but that still won’t pay for fixing sidewalks. So his report proposes a new sales tax that would raise $4.5 billion over 15 years.

That’s a sharp turn from the bond measure that had been in consideration. Santana said the bond idea wasn’t bowling over voters in public meetings held by Councilmen Joe Buscaino and Mitch Englander. But it’s hard to see how a sales tax is going to be a crowd pleaser either. That will hit lower-income people harder and still need two-thirds voter approval.

So what’s going to happen?

Again, I have no special powers of prediction. But we’re late to the task of both earthquake preparedness and sidewalk repair, and we’re moving slowly. So watch your step, stay out of concrete buildings, and check here regularly for updates.