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Learning From the Northridge Earthquake

The earthquake that struck the densely populated Northridge area of Los Angeles on January 17, 1994, though only moderately strong by conventional measures, produced a "pulse" of ground movement that made it among the worst ever recorded in the United States. Sixty-one deaths and more than 1,600 serious injuries were attributed to the Northridge quake, with damage estimates ranging as high as $20 billion.

Although the Los Angeles area's preparedness measures are among the best in the country, the death toll would certainly have been much higher if not for an accident of timing--the temblor hit in the predawn hours of a holiday, when most residents were still in bed. Three new studies sponsored by HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research review damage from the Northridge quake and assess efforts to reduce losses of life and property in future seismic events.

Assessment of Damage to Residential Buildings Caused by the Northridge Earthquake presents the findings of a damage survey of single- family detached houses and multifamily low-rise and single-family attached developments. The study found that major structural damage to residential buildings was unusual, although many multifamily buildings built above an open-air parking garage were severely racked and some collapsed, leading to loss of life.

Performance of HUD-Assisted Properties During the January 17, 1994, Northridge Earthquake analyzes HUD-affiliated, multifamily residences that sustained damage in the earthquake, finding that only 3 percent of the units examined were rendered uninhabitable. Consistent with the findings of HUD's broader assessment of residential structures, the study also observed poor structural performance among wood-frame buildings with a "soft" ground floor.

In Preparing for the "Big One": Saving Lives Through Earthquake Mitigation in Los Angeles, California, HUD expands the scope of its assessment to include schools, hospitals, utility "lifelines," roads, and dams, as well as the local housing stock. This broad synthesis is used to support the report's discussion of the issue now confronting policymakers--how to undertake and sustain mitigation measures that will effectively minimize the human, physical, and economic toll of the next major earthquake.

Through interviews with a variety of individuals responsibly involved in earthquake recovery and mitigation efforts, HUD has identified a number of significant gaps and deficiencies in current mitigation strategies for the Los Angeles area--and beyond. These include:

  • The timing and short duration of funding for mitigation efforts. The report calls the primary source of Federal mitigation funding--the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Hazard Mitigation Grants Program--"actually a form of post-disaster response and recovery" because it can only be obtained after a disaster has been declared, whereas mitigation refers to actions taken to limit hazards before a disaster occurs.
  • The inability of State and local governments to fully meet matching requirements intended to ensure that Federal funds are leveraged by other resources.
  • Lack of attention to nonstructural hazards which the report found may be the greatest threat to the safety of Los Angeles area residents during earthquakes. Most existing programs and resources are designed to address structural mitigation needs.
  • The mismatch between housing mitigation needs and resources. More than 80 percent of damaged residential units were in multifamily housing. Low-cost rental housing was particularly affected. However, the bulk of the available recovery programs are designed to serve middle-class owners of single-family homes.
  • Deteriorating inspection capacity. Staff reductions at State and local agencies responsible for monitoring the seismic safety of buildings and infrastructure have "compromised" the ability of State and local governments to vigorously enforce existing construction and safety codes.
  • The three studies discussed above are available from HUD for $4 each. Please contact HUD USER to obtain print copies.

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