Building inspectors urge caution in quake's wake

Shifting materials could lead to later damage

August 23, 2011|By Tricia Bishop and Liz F. Kay, The Baltimore Sun

Even as they discovered new scars from Tuesday's earthquake — a collapsed roof in Annapolis, broken glass at Baltimore's Port Discovery, a crumbled chimney in Catonsville — officials were most concerned about the unseen damage as they prepared to reopen Maryland buildings to the public Wednesday.

Teams of inspectors were deployed throughout the state to assess the structural safety of everything from the airport to the sports stadiums, authorities said. Helicopter pilots conducted aerial surveys, structural engineers searched for fresh foundation cracks and transportation examiners pored over each county's weaker bridges.

They were looking for anything out of the ordinary that might signal danger down the road.

"It's serious because we just don't get [earthquakes] here, it's something we're not used to," said Edward J. McDonough, spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. "Our buildings are not built to the same standard as they are on the West Coast."

California earthquake experts said gas and water pipes could have broken, bricks loosened and foundations shifted, which could lead to leaks and collapses later on. And McDonough cautioned that there may be more to come: There's a 10 percent chance the state could experience a significant aftershock within 24 hours, he said.

McDonough and other state authorities urged homeowners to look for slanting window sills and doorways, sagging roofs and loose facade materials to assess how well their homes weathered the quake. Those with concerns should call local building inspectors or private engineers to do a thorough exam.

Most jurisdictions reported only minor damage. The most serious appeared to have occurred in northern Howard County, officials said, where a six-unit apartment building shifted and had to be evacuated. A shelter was set up at a local high school to accommodate the displaced.

At least one Harford County high school reported a gas leak, and 23 schools in Baltimore County found light to moderate damage, such as cracks in exterior walls and displaced ceiling tiles.

In Anne Arundel County, operations personnel inspected the airfields at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, along with the terminal roadways and garages, all of which appeared fine.

But aPasadena high school reported roof and other damage, as did some of Annapolis' historic buildings, including the structure that houses Peppers tourist shop on Main Street. It appeared to tilt several inches, creating a V-shaped gap between it and its neighbor.

The inside was pristine, however, said sales associate Bobby Atwell.

"I'm glad nothing more serious happened," he said. "I don't know how old this building is … but you couldn't replace it."

Annapolis officials planned to assess the structural integrity of parking garages Wednesday morning, and said they received about 20 reports of damage, "ranging from falling bricks to cracks in chimneys."

Most of the immediate damage in the state was centered in Baltimore, officials said, where the concentration of older buildings placed close together made for a vulnerable combination. A chunk of concrete fell from the top of the St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church in Fells Point, glass shattered at the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter, and a women's shelter lost some bricks.

About 11 city schools sustained some damage, with cracked bricks and ceilings, authorities said, and another review of buildings was scheduled for Wednesday.

In Highlandtown, the Order of the Sons of Italy building on Gough Street partially collapsed, and a portion of the eastside wall of Henry Reif's home caved in, displacing the 91-year-old, who said he recently spent $40,000 on home improvements.

"I was in there when the inspector went in. He said, 'No way,'" said Reif, who has lived at the home all his life. "I don't know what I am going to do if I have to pay for it." A house next door, at the corner of Gough and Conkling streets, was also condemned.

Officials in each jurisdiction are largely responsible for ensuring the safety of their public buildings and facilities, and most reacted quickly.

Six building inspectors were dispatched by Baltimore County's Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections to check for gas leaks at regional hospitals, said director Arnold Jablon. Carroll County inspectors checked out the courthouses and government buildings. And Cecil County went so far as to delay the start of the school year, scheduled to begin Wednesday, so inspections could take place.

In Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake assembled a team of leaders at an emergency command center downtown shortly after the quake to assess the damage and propose next steps.

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