Earthquake Safety is Coming to LA, But It's Not What You Think

GELFAND’S WORLD--It will be a fine spring day in the year 2023 when Los Angeles achieves earthquake survivability. That's because the owners of approximately 13,500 properties were given 7 years (starting March 3, 2016) to upgrade buildings that are the most dangerous in earthquakes. We're talking mostly about those apartment buildings in which the first level of apartments are built above garage spaces which are only held up by thin poles or other inadequate support. 

Technically, these buildings are described as having soft stories. It's a strange term, but it means that the dwelling space can come crashing down into the space below it in response to a little shaking. 

In recent columns, I've been talking about the desirability of preparing the public for a major earthquake. We're talking about a quake with total energy on the order of ten to a hundred times that of the 1994 Northridge quake. The energy would be transmitted through the earth starting from farther away, but when a 200 mile rupture occurs on the San Andreas fault, Los Angeles is sure to suffer enormous shaking and consequent damage. 

It would of course be useful for the majority of Angelenos to have some training and some supplies in the event of such a quake. Right now, I'm not convinced that the city government is serious about developing a well prepared population. (More on that below.) 

As to unsafe buildings: For the past few days, local television stations have been showing the disastrous collapse of a multistory building in Mexico City. That's the kind of nightmare scenario that we prefer not to think about. It's also the kind of collapse that would leave volunteers helpless in the attempt to assist those trapped (or most likely, dead) in the rubble. Most of us living here would be immune from that kind of collapse, but the soft story apartment buildings are the exception. 

The potential cure for this problem came about through a meeting between seismologist Lucy Jones and newly elected mayor Eric Garcetti in 2013. Jones agreed to advise the city on earthquake danger and preparation. Out of this came the report titled Resiliance by Design.  That report concentrates on three issues, namely buildings, water supplies, and communications. The arguments expressed in the report led to the ordinance that requires property owners to upgrade (or demolish) the dangerous structures. 

Buildings made of concrete prior to the mid-1970s are also particularly vulnerable to shaking. The ordinance mentions these structures, but provides a different time frame for dealing with them. 

The soft story residential buildings are the crucial issue because thousands of people live in them. These would be the cause of the most casualties in the event of a major quake. 

You might wonder whether the building you live in is part of this group. The L.A. Times provides a convenient link to this information. I suggest typing in the zip code and scrolling down the street addresses. I found 4 buildings on my block alone that are listed. 

Living in a unit that is on that list creates a quandary for tenants. As of now, your landlord has five and a half years to do the necessary repairs. You can keep your fingers crossed that the big earthquake won't occur between now and then. The recent remark by one seismologist that the San Andreas fault is "locked and loaded" doesn't provide much comfort, but we've gone a lifetime without the killer quake, so maybe we've got a few more years. 

On the other hand, that list is public and anybody with a computer keyboard has access to it. As public perception of the hazard increases, landlords may find themselves in a more difficult situation when it comes to getting renters. In the short term, landlords will see an advantage in getting the repairs done sooner rather than later. If you get your building upgraded right now, you will have a selective advantage in being able to advertise your space. For Rent: 1 and 2 bedrooms, Earthquake Safe! 

It's a curious thing to realize that for all the flurry about getting people CERT trained, the mayor and the City Council have already done the heavy lifting in terms of reducing the casualty total (because they enacted the ordinance that will reduce the initial deaths that unsafe buildings would create). We might be critical about the length of time that the ordinance allows before completion of retrofitting, but every day that goes by without a magnitude 8 quake is one more day closer to (relative) seismic safety. 

Meanwhile, the city continues to ignore (largely) the public 

The Neighborhood Council Emergency Preparedness Alliance (NCEPA) met this weekend and reviewed the latest in proposed volunteer efforts. We heard an interesting report about a group exercise in the Mount Washington area. Around a hundred people from the neighborhood participated, along with trained rescue workers from different agencies. The take home lesson appears to be that people are willing to participate in self-preservation workshops under the right circumstances. In this case, we're looking at a suburban area containing single family homes on separate lots. We should recognize that these aren't the dangerously unstable soft-story structures that require retrofitting. Still, it's nice to see that all those people were interested and willing enough to go through the drill. 

Part of the drill involved handing out two-way radios to the volunteers. Not surprisingly, most of them had no idea what to do with them. In a situation where access to radio frequencies is important, you need to keep your transmissions clear and terse rather than clogging up the air. Instead, as we were told, "They reported everything." This is very different from the idea of a small, disciplined group of radio operators who will keep the frequencies open and work efficiently. That's not to say that these people can't get this kind of training, but that the exercise didn't consider the importance of communications as an essential element. 

We also heard a report on the plan for you that the city government will be pushing next. I wrote about this proposal before -- the Ready Your L.A. Neighborhood plan. It's the one I referred to as RYLAN. The spokesperson explained that the plan is for small groups of neighbors -- perhaps as many as 30 houses or as few as 15 to get together and share their personal information. "What's your cell phone number? Let's make a list of names and numbers. Are there people with disabilities? How about special skills such as medicine or nursing? What tools or other special devices do you have?" 

Now here's the problem: Each of these groups is supposed to come together because one person knows enough to volunteer and to invite the neighbors. Being the quantitative sort that I am, I asked myself, "OK, how many volunteers do we need to cover the city?" I asked the spokesperson if her group had considered that question, and what might the answer be? 

She didn't have a clue. She just hazarded a guess that the number would be large. 

I'm afraid that at this moment, I pointed out that having graduated from high school, I could hazard my own estimate. It's actually this simple -- if you figure 20 homes and take an average of 2 or 3 inhabitants (the famous 2.5 members in the average family) then you are talking about one of these meetings representing 50 people or so. That means that in a city of 4 million inhabitants, we are looking at holding somewhere on the order of eighty thousand gatherings. And each of those gatherings requires somebody to volunteer, and that necessarily means somebody who is knowledgeable, extroverted, and willing to buy the coffee and donuts. 

It gets worse. The planners point out that an average sized apartment building is also one of those neighborhoods. That means that in the part of the city where I live, we might need to have 10 such gatherings on my block alone. And we would need to have volunteers willing to do organizing in the big city urban landscape, not a suburb where most people know each other. That's a lot of volunteers who would be coming out of a relatively small pool. 

I think that this plan is idiotic. We are unlikely to find 4000 volunteers with these attributes, much less 80,000. That smaller number is about twice the total number of neighborhood council board members in the entire city. But apparently, it's the plan that our city's emergency operations group is about to roll out. 

Let's call it what it is. This plan is symbolic gesturing. It's an act of ticket punching by city bureaucrats who have been told to do something. They have a defined problem (the public are unprepared). They have a defined goal (the public will be prepared). And in the middle they have . . . nothing. They don't have enough city employees to do the job, and they can figure out that there aren't nearly enough volunteers. So they offer a process that people might theoretically be able to do. But they know that they aren't going to get enough people. It's like the famous cartoon by Sydney Harris. Getting from the defined problem to the defined solution would take a miracle. 

And then I got yelled at 

The RYLAN plan doesn't seem to imagine a comprehensive communications process that would allow the volunteers in Mount Washington or Coastal San Pedro to report serious injuries to a central command center that might be able to do something useful. I asked the following question: "Suppose we discover that one of our neighbors has a broken femur -- in other words, a serious but survivable injury. It can't be treated with amateur first aid, but it can be treated adequately at the nearest hospital. 

Here are a few of the answers I got: 

"Maybe there's a nurse on the next block over. If you've done your Map Your Neighborhood (that's the procedure that RYLAN wants to accomplish) then you would know this." 

"Maybe there's a vet tech in the neighborhood. They fix fractures in dogs. I'd rather be treated by a vet tech than by some doctors I know." 

(The following yelled out by a man who stood and faced me): "In a disaster, people are going to die! The man with the broken femur is dead!" 

Let me reply briefly. I picked this injury as an example because it is treatable by a competent orthopedist who has access to standard equipment. It is not the sort of injury that should be handled by a nurse lacking orthopedic experience, much less by a vet tech. And the answer about the nurse is nothing but wishful thinking anyway. Maybe there's a nurse, maybe there isn't, and maybe the nurse who lives on the next block works in obstetrics. On the other hand, a hospital emergency room knows how to deal with this injury. 

And -- to reply to the guy who yelled at me -- if government policy is to write off a person with a fractured femur as dead, then I think we should invite renewed scrutiny of that policy. 

In considering the discussion of RYLAN and how we are supposed to execute it, I came to four conclusions. The first is that RYLAN and the Mount Washington exercise are basically fanciful imaginings of how things would be if our own little area is entirely cut off from civilization. The idea that we can entrust major injuries to individuals with CERT training is rejected by the CERT experts themselves. 

The second conclusion is that in the event of a major earthquake in which hundreds of soft-story buildings collapse, we will be faced with thousands of casualties and the professionals at the hospitals will indeed be overwhelmed. In that scenario, we will be on our own for everything but the most serious (but treatable) injuries. I don't think that the people trying to sell us RYLAN have entirely thought this through. 

The third conclusion is that the people who are pushing the idea of RYLAN (particularly the person who spoke to us on Saturday) are examples of charismatic extroverts. I don't think they quite understand how difficult it would be to recruit thousands of block hosts with the same attributes that they themselves have. 

My last conclusion will come across as peculiar or argumentative, but I swear that it came to me while I was talking to one of the CERT representatives at Saturday's meeting. In a disaster so massive that even that broken femur is left untreated for a couple or three days (because there is no way to transport him to a hospital, or the hospital has a thousand cases waiting), that injured person needs pain killer. What are those well meaning volunteers going to do? It occurred to me that the most important volunteer would be the neighborhood dope dealer, because strong pain killers can ward off some of the more pernicious effects of this kind of injury. It's a bizarre conclusion to reach, but I invite the reader to challenge the logic.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected]