A recently released UC Berkeley list of older concrete buildings in L.A. that could be at greater risk of collapse in the event of a major earthquake includes some noteworthy examples. (The complete list, obtained by the Weekly, is embedded at the bottom of this story).
Malls, schools and even some hospitals are on the list of 1,451 "pre-1976 building code ... nonductile concrete buildings" of the type known in rare occasions to buckle when a big one hits, according to UC Berkeley.
However, researchers emphasize that the list is a catchall that doesn't account for buildings that have been retrofitted, or even ones that were built ahead of the standards of their day. For example:
Hospitals on the UC Berkeley list include Kaiser facilities in Hollywood, Harbor City and Panorama City. California Hospital Medical Center was also named. But a 1994 law requires inspections and, where necessary, retrofitting of all acute-care hospitals in California, although some won't have to comply until 2020.
*We reached out to representatives of both hospital groups to find out if they have indeed been retrofitted but we had yet to hear back. [Added at 12:08 p.m: Kaiser tells us its Hollywood and Panorama City facilities have been replaced. See more at the bottom].
Several school and university buildings, including some belonging to the Los Angeles Unified School District (Hollywood High, Hamilton High, Marina del Rey Middle), are also on the list. We reached out to the LAUSD but did not hear back.
A California law requires schools to inspect their pre-1976 inventory and retrofit buildings where necessary. A 2002 survey found 650 LAUSD schools that needed serious inspection. But a California Watch report from a few years ago found that thousands of California schools were never properly certified for earthquake safety.
The UC Berkeley list also includes DWP buildings, hotels, churches, theaters and even a dance club that was renovated, its owners say, to the tune of $5 million.
And that brings up that important caveat: Unless all of these buildings have been thoroughly inspected by structural engineers, it can't be assumed they're any more dangerous than the fortified bunker that houses the L.A. Emergency Operations Center.
UC Berkeley engineering professor Jack Moehle, who was part of a sizable research team funded by $3.6 million in federal cash, says, "We are concerned that this list of buildings not be distorted into something that it's not:"
Our purpose was not to identify exactly every building, but instead to get an idea of the overall number of buildings so we could do some scenario studies of what potential losses might be and what different policy measures might change those losses.
Researchers combed public records to find pre-1976-code nonductile concrete buildings. The investigation included looking at maps to ensure buildings were still there, and getting street-view looks to confirm they're concrete, Moehle said.
The database is from 2011, however, so anything fixed after that would be still be on the list even though it shouldn't be.
"There's no certainty that what we obtained is still correct," Moehle told us. "And one needs to recognize that not every building prior to '76 lacked reinforcement."
The academics believe the list is about 93 percent accurate, he said. Nonductile refers to buildings that are not very flexible, especially compared to newer structures. The list comprises about $17 billion worth of property, the researchers say.
Structures erected after about midyear in 1976 in California not only are more flexible, but they were required to have more steel reinforcement in their concrete, Moehle said.
The UC Berkeley analysis included what might happen if a 7.8 along the San Andreas Fault or a 7.1 along the Puente Hills Fault struck the city. The collapse rate among these kinds of buildings would be five percent or less, resulting in fewer than 75 structures going down within city limits, Moehle said.
Though these kinds of structures soared in popularity in the 1920s, with many being warehouse and industrial spaces that have lighter loads and are thus less susceptible to collapse, more modern versions from the 1950s and '60s can present danger, he said.
"Engineering knowledge was improving, but not the earthquake knowledge," Moehle said. "Engineers were more efficient in their use of materials. Buildings of that vintage were lighter and more vulnerable. We saw that in Alaska in '64 and then again in the Sylmar quake."
What's next? Moehle:
The city and the community can develop an inventory of the buildings it thinks are suspect, then the city can implement policies to begin to work on this problem.
Indeed, the City Council this month responded to the study with a measure that would put City Hall support behind a state ballot initiative to provide funding for "earthquake safety improvements" among L.A.'s pre-'76 concrete buildings.
The ball is also rolling on the idea of having the city conduct a more definitive survey to ID the buildings that are genuinely at risk. "If an owner has already taken mitigation, that building can come off the list," Moehle said.
The cost for building owners to retrofit (tens of thousands) or even replace (into the millions, possibly) means the city needs to figure out which structures are really in need of help, he said.
We reached out to the L.A. Emergency Management Department and Teresa Abraham of the Department of Building and Safety for information but had yet to hear back.
Jeff Millman, spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti, said City Hall is ready to proceed:
While this research does not investigate the seismic condition of any individual buildings, the City of Los Angeles will evaluate this and other research as we work to make LA more prepared for the next big earthquake.
*[Update at 12:08 p.m.]: Kaiser Permanente sent us this statement about its facilities:
Kaiser Permanente has replaced or is replacing 8 of our hospitals in Southern California to ensure that every one of them will be ready and safe to serve communities after a major earthquake. Our new hospitals meet California's very stringent earthquake safety standards and are designed to not only be safe during a major earthquake - but to be fully functional and able to care for patients after a major seismic event, including operating independently from utility services (water & power) for three full days. Across all of California, Kaiser Permanente has replaced, or is replacing 13 hospitals to meet california's seismic requirements.
Kaiser Permanente's Panorama City replacement hospital was opened in March 2008. The replacement hospital for our Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center was opened in March 2009, and the replacement hospital for Kaiser Permanente's South Bay Medical Center will be opening in early 2015.
Lucy Jones, a U.S. Geological Survey seismologist and the mayor's science adviser for seismic safety, had this to say about the list:
We are glad to receive the list of older concrete buildings from the PEER Center. The list allows us to understand some about the scale and scope of the problem. It is not a comprehensive list. It is the information researchers were able to compile from public records so they could have a data set to study the issues. There could be other
buildings at risk that are not on the list. It is also not a list of dangerous buildings. It is a list of buildings that have the potential to be dangerous and need to be examined to understand what risk they pose.
The list allows us to start the process of moving forward. We need to reach out to the engineers who can describe what types of buildings are at risk and how they can be retrofitted, to the LA Department of Building and Safety to determine how to find all such buildings in Los Angeles, to the financial industry who can help us determine how to finance improvements, to those with a financial stake in the buildings including the owners and the tenants living and working in these buildings, so that together we can find a solution that will work for the City of Los Angeles. This is a process that is part of the cooperative project between the City of Los Angeles and the USGS.
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[Added at 2:38 p.m., Jan. 30]: The folks at California Hospital Medical Center and its parent, Dignity Health, got back to us with this statement:
Dignity Health is committed to seismic safety, and we have invested more than $1 billion in seismically strengthening our hospital buildings. These investments have come during a time of intense financial pressure as reimbursements from public health programs continue to decline. We are in regular contact with OSHPD regarding our seismic safety progress. Pending timely approval of our plans by OSHPD we expect all of our hospital buildings, including the 1964 Building, to be compliant with seismic regulations by the 2020 deadline.