Is Los Angeles prepared for the “big one?” The general assumption around town is no. Twenty years after the 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake awakened Angelinos at 4:31 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1994, most buildings erect then have not been retrofitted, nor are drivers confident that roadways will be safe.
In South Los Angeles, the 10 Freeway overpass at Venice Boulevard and La Brea Avenue collapsed, while the 14 Freeway overpass fell once again—even after engineers believed the structure would remain intact after repair from the 1971 Sylmar earthquake. In general, South Los Angeles in 1994 did not experience the widespread damage that occurred in the San Fernando Valley or even as close as Santa Monica, but because this area may have some of the city’s oldest structures, officials believe inspection and retrofitting the numerous old, brick builds is long overdue.
While Los Angeles is no stranger to earthquakes, a detailed analysis performed five years ago by Haresh C. Shah, professor of civil engineering at Stanford University, and associates at Risk Management Solutions Inc. of Menlo Park estimated then that a worse-case scenario magnitude 7.0 temblor on the Newport-Inglewood fault could result in a shocking 3,000 to 5,000 deaths, 11,000 to 20,000 hospitalizations and a total economic loss of $175 billion to $220 billion.
Four miles beneath the Coliseum and USC, the Puente Hills Fault is capable of a magnitude 7.1 earthquake which would bring havoc to South Los Angeles. This scenario would release about 10 to 15 times more energy than the Northridge Earthquake, resulting in the collapse of nearby highrises and possibly skyscrapers further north on Figueroa Street. “You wouldn’t want to be in downtown if that earthquake were to happen,” said Thomas H. Jordan, director of the Southland Earquake Center at USC.
Late last year, the Los Angeles Times identified seven concrete buildings in Los Angeles that are at major risk of collapse:
–Santee Alley. The buildings that tower over the popular shoppping district are not earthquake resistant,
–Capitol Records is made primarily of concrete,
–Hollywood Plaza off Vine Street is mostly concrete,
–The Avalon nightclub in Hollywood, from the 1920s, is mostly concrete,
–The Pantages Theatre has not been seismic retrofitted,
–The W Hotel in Westwood has never been retrofitted, and
–The Westwood Clock tower near UCLA is composed of concrete, lath and plaster.
Tomorrow at California State University, Northridge—whose Oviatt Library was demolished as it sat less than one mile from the epicenter at the Northridge Mall—city officials will commemorate the disaster and sound the familiar warning that we live in earthquake country and citizens should make preparation in case of an earthquake or any natural calamity. The event is presented by the Valley Economic Alliance, created in response to the Northridge Earthquake, and will feature Mayor Eric Garcetti and a cadre of local elected officials as well as members of congress.
They may speak on the new earthquake awareness system being developed by U.C. Berkeley and the U.S. Geological Survey which would place sensors up and down the state, designed to detect even the tiniest of vibrations. At Cal Tech in Pasadena last week, instrumental specialist Russell Oliver explained how the system could work: “If you put the sensor on one end of a football field and raised the opposite end by just the width of a human hair, the sensor would detect that. They are also able to detect forces as large and as subtle as the gravitational pull of the moon.”
The sensors are not cheap, costing up to $17,000, but even a few seconds’ warning after the temblor begins could save lives. They have about 400 sensors imbedded now, some on mountaintops, others in forests and in deserts, and even a few in office buildings, costing so far $15 million yearly to operate. The goal of the system is to warn people after the smallest shaking starts so they can get to safety before the ground begins to crumble beneath them.
“The project is a small investment for the potential benefit,” said State Senator Alex Padilla (D-20th District) who helped pass a bill last year to build the warning system. The California Office of Emergency Services is looking for a way to raise the $80 million needed to finish the project, likely through a combination of state money, federal grants and private funding. If they don’t have the money by Jan. 1, 2016, requirements of the law will expire.
Doug Given, a scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, told Fox 11 News last week that “earthquakes can shake loose dollars,” hoping that the state will place more emphasis on live-saving measures which will, assuredly, be needed in Los Angeles. The Northridge Earthquake lasted 10 to 20 seconds and was followed by several thousand aftershocks. Ground motion extended 220 miles and caused $20 billion in damage within an 85-mile radius. Fifty-seven people died and more than 8,700 were injured.