Ali Sahabi

The devastation left by hurricanes Harvey and Irma should be a wakeup call to those of us in California.

These two natural disasters have burdened society with not only loss of lives, but an economic impact of more than $290 billion that includes property damage and loss; disruptions to business, transportation and infrastructure; heightened unemployment; and increased prices for gasoline and other fuels impacting all Americans.

Early Warnings to Prepare for the Worst

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for years had warned Texas of the need to identify floodplains and to prepare for hurricanes and typhoons of epic proportions. Florida – long at risk for rising sea levels and extreme weather events – has been criticized by officials and academics as showing little interest in funding projects to help the state adapt and become more resilient.

Here in California, seismologists for years have warned us to prepare for the “Big One.”

They predict that an earthquake of epic proportions is looming – one that could be up to 45 times stronger than the 1994 Northridge earthquake – which at $67 billion in damage, ranked, until Harvey and Irma, as the second costliest natural disaster in U.S. history behind Hurricane Katrina. Read more about the massive scope of this impending disaster in this Los Angeles Times story.

Is California ready?

FEMA estimates that Los Angeles faces the highest annualized earthquake damage projections of any other city in the nation at $1.3 billion per year. This annualized projection reflects the average amount of money that would be spent each year on earthquake recovery based on anticipated damage spread over a long period of time.

Seismic retrofitting of vulnerable structures is critical to reducing risk, a Federal Emergency Management Agency study recently found.

“It’s important for protecting the lives and assets of building occupants and the continuity of their work,” FEMA reported.  “On the whole, communities with more retrofitted structures can recover from earthquakes more rapidly.”

A growing number of cities and building owners throughout the state of California are adopting that proactive approach: identifying structures that are proven to be at risk of damage or collapse in a major quake and turning to seismic retrofits to fix the problem.

A short list of municipalities that have passed or will adopt earthquake retrofit laws includes: San Francisco, Berkeley, Richmond, Fremont, San Jose, Alameda, Santa Clara County, Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and West Hollywood – with others planning to adopt new policies soon.

Many building owners are having the work done even without any law in place. They know that retrofits will help to protect their tenants, preserve their investment and guard them from liability.

Retrofits are not just a matter of protecting life, limb and property. They contribute tremendously to the resiliency of a community and society’s capability to recover from seismic activity of horrific proportions.

(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles planned to focus earthquake safety, the different types of buildings vulnerable to damage in a quake, threats and liabilities for building owners, and what various cities are doing to protect the resiliency of their communities.)

Ali Sahabi has been a licensed General Engineering Contractor (GEC) since 1993, and is a principal at Optimum Seismic, Inc. He has completed hundreds of seismic retrofitting and adaptive reuse projects for multifamily residential, commercial, and industrial buildings throughout California.