LOS ANGELES – U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Lucy Jones remembers attending an emergency training session in August 2001 with the Federal Emergency Management Agency that discussed the three most likely catastrophes to strike the United States.
First on the list was a terrorist attack in New York. Second was a super-strength hurricane hitting New Orleans. Third was a major earthquake alongthe San Andreas fault.
Now that the first two have come to pass, she and other earthquake experts are using the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as an opportunity to reassess how California would handle a major temblor.
Jones, scientist-in-charge for the geological survey’s Southern California Earthquake Hazards Team, and other experts generally agree that California has come a long way in the last two decades in seismic safety.
In Los Angeles, all but one of 8,700 unreinforced masonry buildings – considered the most likely to collapse in a major quake – have been retrofitted or demolished. The state spent billions after the 1994 Northridge quake to retrofit more than 2,100 freeway overpasses, reporting last week that only a handful remain unreinforced.
Despite these improvements, officials believe a major temblor could cause the level of destruction and disruption seen on the Gulf Coast.
More than 900 hospital buildings that state officials have identified as needing either retrofitting or total replacement have yet to be addressed, and the state recently agreed to five-year extensions for hospitals that can’t meet the 2008 deadline to make the fixes. More than 7,000 school buildings across the state also would be vulnerable during a huge temblor, a state study found, though there is no firm timetable for upgrading the structures.
And four Los Angeles Police Department facilities – including the Parker Center headquarters downtown – worry officials because they were built to weaker earthquake standards. Only two of the LAPD’s 19 stations meet the most rigorous quake-safe rules.
“We could be dealing with infrastructure issues a lot like New Orleans,” Jones said. “Our natural gas passes through the Cajon Pass. … Water – three pipelines – cross the San Andreas fault in an area that is expected to go in an earthquake.” Railway lines are also vulnerable, she said.
Seismologists are particularly concerned about a type of vulnerable building that has received far less attention than unreinforced masonry.
There are about 40,000 structures in California made from “non-ductile reinforced concrete,” a rigid substance susceptible to cracking. This was a common construction ingredient for office buildings in the 1950s and ‘60s, before the state instituted stricter standards. Few such structures have been seismically retrofitted, officials said.
Still, Southern California’s geography could help prevent a catastrophe on the scale of that in New Orleans.
Because the Los Angeles region is so much larger than the Louisiana city, it is difficult to conceive of a disaster – “short of an A-bomb” – that would blanket the whole city, let alone the whole county, in ruin, said Lee Sapaden, a spokesman for Los Angeles County’s Office of Emergency Management.
Emergency crews would have better mobility than those in New Orleans, he added, because even if freeways were wrecked, aid would probably be able to get through the vast majority of areas on surface streets.
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