Quake safety efforts flag in California

As the memory of major temblors fades, questions of cost take precedence


Efforts to improve 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 high costs 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.

The veto was the latest of several setbacks in Sacramento for seismic safety advocates. Lawmakers turned down 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 health care companies complained 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 school buildings could be at risk in a quake passed the Legislature only after it was amended to say that the information would not be made public - or even sent to school districts unless they specifically 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 Democratic Sen. Elaine Alquist , who proposed the bill to count vulnerable schools. Only about 5 percent of the state's school districts have requested the information.

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

Those temblors prompted an aggressive and expensive effort to improve quake safety. California spent $3.2 billion fixing thousands of bridges and freeway overpasses to better withstand quakes since the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. Thousands of unreinforced masonry buildings were retrofitted, and the city of Los Angeles required homeowners to add 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 seismic policy in California: 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. Experts say it would cost billions of dollars 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.

Sharon Bernstein writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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