Resilience by Design – a plan to address Los Angeles’ greatest earthquake vulnerabilities

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Mayor Garcetti Sidebar quotePeople fear earthquakes because they threaten our lives. Of all natural disasters, earthquakes have caused the greatest amount of fatalities in the world: 86,000 people died in the 2005 Pakistan 7.6 magnitude earthquake; 88,000 people died in the 2008 China 7.9 magnitude earthquake; and the more than 200,000 people died in the 2010 Haiti 7.0 earthquake (EERI, 2006; USGS, 2014c; USGS, 2011).

According to Swiss Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurance companies, Los Angeles faces one of the greatest risks of catastrophic loss from earthquakes of any city in the world, eclipsed only by Tokyo, Jakarta, and Manila (Swiss Re, 2013).

Policies, if not considered carefully, can design for disaster (Mileti, 1999). But, when thoughtfully developed, they can design for resilience. While the City of Los Angeles has been working on a number of fronts to increase its resilience to the effects of earthquakes, much more work remains to be done.

Earlier this year, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Dr. Lucy Jones of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) as his Science Advisor for Seismic Safety.  This was enabled through a Technical Assistance Agreement with USGS.

“Here in Los Angeles, much of the city was built in the 50s and 60s in a style of construction that performed badly in the 71 earthquake,” said Dr. Jones. “We don’t build them now, but we still have those older buildings, and we know that they are potentially very deadly buildings.”

Mayor Garcetti organized:

(1) experts in his office in the areas of resilience, emergency management, law, infrastructure, housing, building safety, communications, and sustainability;
(2) a Technical Task Force that included leaders of the structural engineering community in California and subject matter experts from the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety;
(3) subject matter experts on water systems within the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power; and
(4) a Communications Task Force that included leaders in the Communications industry.

Collectively, these experts constitute the Seismic Safety Task Force that prepared the Report. (Click here to download and read the full Resilience by Design report.)

The Report’s high-level recommendations areas include:

  • Strengthen Buildings: Mayor Garcetti’s plan would require retrofitting of two types of vulnerable buildings. Retrofits would be required within 5 years at “soft-first-story” buildings built prior to 1980, and retrofits would be required within 25 years at “non-ductile reinforced concrete” buildings built prior to 1980.
  • Water System Fortification: The plan recommends significant investments in fortifying the city’s water supply, including developing an alternative water system for firefighting, protecting aqueducts that cross the San Andreas Fault, increasing local water sources, and developing a network of resilient pipes.
  • Enhance Reliable Telecommunications: The plan also calls for upgrades to the city’s telecommunications network to enable Internet and mobile connectivity after an earthquake, including creating partnerships with providers for shared broadband services after disasters, protecting power systems at fault crossings, creating a solar-powered citywide Wi-Fi network to avoid power disruptions, and fortifying cell phone towers.

In a statement released by The Structural Engineers Association of Southern California (SEAOSC), representing the local structural engineering community, the SEAOSC greatly commends Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and his office for the leadership shown in working with Dr. Jones and in partnering with building owners to improve the city’s disaster resilience through the implementation of new mandatory earthquake building retrofit programs.

The official statement reads:

With a history rich in assisting governing officials develop city building ordinances and state and national codes; SEAOSC was pleased to respond to the Mayor’s request to have SEAOSC add their expertise to Los Angeles’s resiliency conversation. The new programs put forth by the Mayor will improve the performance of some of Los Angeles’s more vulnerable buildings that could collapse during a major earthquake. We congratulate the Mayor’s office for taking the stance that Los Angeles will be the first city in the nation to rate the anticipated seismic performance of publicly owned buildings. Once rated and publicly posted, the ratings will help Angelinos and the surrounding communities understand the City’s commitment to safe public buildings. This commitment and the implementation of retrofit programs to enhance earthquake performance and increase public awareness is critical to the resiliency and sustainability of the greater Los Angeles community.

SEAOSC also commends the wide community of building owners for working with the City of Los Angeles to develop best processes to implement earthquake retrofitting programs for Soft-Story Wood Framed Buildings and Non-Ductile Concrete Buildings. Without building owner’s continued support for building safety this would not be possible. These two building types are considered to have significant vulnerability and the potential for collapse during an earthquake. However, regardless of building type, SEAOSC encourages all building owners to follow the city’s lead and have their buildings evaluated for earthquake performance and publicly post the rating on their building. It is the association’s belief that this display of the owner’s commitment to better building performance can enhance the financial position of their investment through an increased safety awareness of their tenants and the public at large. This increased performance awareness is the beginning of a truly resilient community; one that is capable of withstanding the economic impact of a severe natural disaster and recover more quickly from a major earthquake event.

“SEAOSC is proud to have been able to assist Mayor Garcetti, Dr. Lucy Jones, the Los Angeles City Department of Building and Safety, as well as the Los Angeles community in these important efforts,” said Michael Cochran, President of the Structural Engineers Association of California.

Firestorm applauds this life-saving preparedness approach.  We know that a thorough risk assessment evaluates the threats that are specific to an environment before an incident, not immediately following. As well-summarized by Mayor Garcetti: “To this point, earthquake policy has more often than not been developed in the immediate aftermath of a major earthquake. And even then, momentum quickly died out, leaving grave vulnerabilities behind. Today, Los Angeles is addressing our greatest earthquake vulnerabilities proactively and strategically.”

Click here to download and read the full Resilience by Design report.


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