Preparing for the "Big One" -- Saving Lives Through Earthquake Mitigation in Los Angeles, CA
OVERVIEW OF EXISTING MITIGATION PROGRAMS
All levels of government are involved in earthquake mitigation efforts.
The Federal Government's strategy is two-pronged: the Federal EmergencyManagement Agency and other agencies fund and implement mitigation
measures as one element of the Federal emergency response to an earthquake
disaster, while the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP)
focuses on federally sponsored research on earthquake hazard issues. On
the State level, California is an active leader in earthquake
preparedness. Local jurisdictions, including the City and County of Los
Angeles, are also working aggressively to recover from the Northridge
earthquake, but their mitigation activities have been slowed by funding
problems and competing recovery needs.
II. National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP)
NEHRP, established under the 1977 Earthquake Hazard Reduction Act,
provides the foundation of research and code standards for Federal
earthquake risk reduction efforts. It is a consortium of four agencies:
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the agency with
primary responsibility for Federal disaster assistance, coordinates the
NEHRP research agenda, and supports activities leading to the
implementation of prudent earthquake risk reduction measures.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) conducts the research necessary to
characterize and identify earthquake hazards, assess risk, monitor seismic
activity, and improve earthquake prediction.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) funds research on the causes
and behavior of earthquakes, as well as on topics related to earthquake
engineering and human responses to earthquakes.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) undertakes
a wide range of research and development activities designed to translate
the wealth of theoretical knowledge, experimentation, and observation on
earthquakes and their effects into building codes, engineering standards,
and construction practices that will improve the seismic safety of
structures and essential infrastructure systems.
Collectively, the four agencies received $93 million to fund NEHRP
earthquake research activities in FY 1993.
In response to a request made to President Bill Clinton by nine members of
the House of Representatives, the White House Office of Science and
Technology Policy (OSTP) is currently conducting a comprehensive review of
NEHRP that will explore the concerns voiced at the 1993 NEHRP
reauthorization hearings. These topics include:
- Lack of an overall strategic plan for NEHRP.
- Insufficient coordination among the agencies to shape a unified, coherent program.
- Too little emphasis on research designed to determine how to mitigate earthquake damage.
Inadequate application of NEHRP research findings to policies,
programs, and practices that will actually save lives and limit losses
OSTP expects to complete and transmit to Congress a report that will
review current Federal earthquake risk reduction efforts and recommend
III. Federal Earthquake Mitigation Efforts
Although a large number of Federal agencies participate in disaster relief
and recovery efforts, FEMA provides most of the funds specifically
intended to support mitigation. HUD, the Small Business Administration,
and a handful of other Federal agencies have programs that include some
mitigation activities as eligible uses; others play specialized supporting
roles in the Federal effort through their regulatory and research
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
Working closely with Federal, State, local, and volunteer organizations,
FEMA coordinates assistance programs designed to start disaster victims
and their communities on the road to recovery. Mitigation assistance
became a central element of this effort with the passage of the 1988
Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. But while
the Stafford Act expanded FEMA's hazard mitigation programs and
activities, it explicitly linked their use in a particular locality to a
presidential declaration of a major disaster. Thus FEMA's role in funding
earthquake mitigation measures is primarily limited to post-disaster
FEMA administers three disaster assistance programs that can be used to
support mitigation activities:
- FEMA's major mitigation initiative is the Hazard Mitigation Grants
Program (HMGP), which funds improved seismic safety for undamaged
buildings through activities identified by the locality in its required
post-disaster hazard mitigation plan. FEMA will fund up to 75 percent of
the eligible costs of each projectthe remainder must be raised from State
or local sources. This matching requirement does not need to be met in
cash; the value of in-kind services and donated materials may be applied
as well. The level of HMGP grants made available in the disaster area
cannot exceed 15 percent of the FEMA funds allocated through its Public
Assistance and Individual Assistance programs (described below). FEMA
also provides some support for pre-disaster efforts to state and local
governments, but it only funds mitigation planning, rather than actual
seismic upgrade and retrofit activities.
- The Public Assistance Program authorizes funding for the repair,
restoration, or replacement of damaged facilities belonging to public
entities and eligible private nonprofit organizations, as well as for
other associated expenses, including emergency protective measures and
debris removal. These funds may also be used for appropriate,
cost-effective hazard mitigation measures related to damaged public
- The Individual Assistance Program provides two mechanisms for
assistance to individuals adversely affected by a major disaster. The
first is the Individual and Family Grant Program, which provides funding
to States for the purpose of making grants to individuals or families with
serious, unmet disaster-related needs. Eligible uses include measures
necessary to protect damaged homes against the immediate threat of
weather-related damage. The Minimal Repair Program makes direct grants to
individuals for repairs needed to make their homes safe, sanitary, and
As of July 1994, FEMA had approved applications for over $1 billion in
disaster assistance related to the Northridge earthquake and the amount
continues to grow. The Hazard Mitigation Grants Program is currently
funding around $800 million in mitigation projects.
Small Business Administration (SBA)
Disaster assistance is part of the mission of the Small Business
Administration (SBA), which provides individuals with loans for privately
owned properties, including businesses and residences. Low-interest SBA
disaster assistance loans can be used to rebuild a damaged structure,
including the cost of bringing it up to the applicable building code
standards. Loans also can pay for some smaller projects that are not
required by code. At the applicant's request, loans may be increased by
up to 20 percent for necessary or appropriate hazard mitigation measures.
SBA has approved over 87,000 loans for $2.7 billion in the aftermath of
the Northridge earthquake.
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
HUD's involvement in earthquake hazard mitigation issues can be traced to
the 1971 San Fernando earthquake. Today, additional allocations made
under HUD's Section 8 rental assistance and Community Development Block
Grant (CDBG) programs provide crucial assistance in major disaster areas.
CDBG, which provides aid to communities to carry out a wide range of
community development activities, can be used for disaster recovery
projects that have mitigation implications. These include repairing
multifamily residential structures, rehabilitating commercial and
industrial facilities, and making infrastructure improvements.
Jurisdictions can also use CDBG grants as matching funds for FEMA disaster
assistance and mitigation programs.
All CDBG activities must benefit low- and moderate-income persons, aid in
the prevention or elimination of slums and blight, or address other
community development needs that present a serious and immediate threat to
the health or welfare of the community. Los Angeles has received $400
million in supplemental CDBG funds for Northridge earthquake relief and
housing rehabilitation, in addition to annual grants of approximately $80
million to the City of Los Angeles and $35 million to Los Angeles County.
Through the HUD Earthquake Loan Program (HELP), the Department has also
made available $100 million in flexible subsidy loans for repairing HUD-
assisted multifamily properties in the Los Angeles area. And, an
additional $100 million in HOME funds were allocated for multifamily
rehabilitation and other earthquake recovery activities.
HUD regulations promote the safety and soundness of all public and
HUD-insured housing by requiring that these structures meet the Minimum
Property Standards (MPS) established by the Department, which are more
stringent than many local code standards. Under newly revised Minimum
Property Standards for single-family and multifamily housing, seismic
safety is a mandatory standard for applicable housing. Earthquake safety
issues will also be addressed in revised design and construction standards
currently being drafted for manufactured homes.
Other Federal Agencies
A number of other Federal agencies also have a fundamental interest in
earthquake risk reduction. For example, agencies such as the Departments
of Defense and Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission engage in
independent hazard identification and risk reduction programs for their
mission- oriented facilities. Other active agencies include:
- The Department of Transportation (DOT), which requires that all
projects receiving DOT grants meet NEHRP standards. It sponsors research
on reducing the vulnerability of DOT-funded buildings and structures,
including bridges and tunnels. It has also developed instructional
products, such as seismic retrofit design manuals, design criteria, and a
primer on how to manage transportation systems.
- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) incorporates seismic
safety standards into its regulation of activities and facilities for
chemical processing, waste water treatment, and toxic waste disposal.
- The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has spent over $1.1 billion
to retrofit and upgrade its hospitals and facilities. The VA Seismic
Strengthening Program has made significant progress since it began in
1971. The screening of 1,064 VA buildings revealed that of the 497
structures at major risk of seismic damage, 301 required seismic
strengthening as soon as possible. To date, 117 buildings have been
retrofitted, and corrections to 13 other structures are in the planning or
design stage. The VA Seismic Strengthening Program faces two major
challenges in the future: it must compete with direct medical care needs
for scarce funds, and it requires large capital investments for seismic
safety improvements that do not address deficiencies in functional space
IV. Statewide Earthquake Mitigation Efforts
The State of California is a leader in earthquake preparedness. Under a
program authorized by Proposition 122, the Earthquake Safety and Public
Buildings Rehabilitation Fund of 1990, the State legislature has offered
$250 million for the financing of seismic retrofitting, reconstruction,
repair, replacement, or relocation of state buildings or facilities and
another $50 million in matching funds to help localities retrofit public
buildings. Two statewide institutions the Governor's Office of Emergency
Services and the independent Seismic Safety Commission are principally
responsible for coordinating the State's earthquake preparations.
Office of Emergency Services (OES)
The Governor's Office of Emergency Services (OES) coordinates most State
disaster preparedness programs. It maintains California's Emergency Plan,
which outlines the responsibilities of State and local officials during
emergencies. Through its three regional offices, OES provides technical
assistance to local officials in the development of emergency plans, aids
in the coordination of emergency services during a crisis, and distributes
Federal and State relief funds. OES also administers the California
Specialized Training Institute (CSTI), which trains officials at all
levels of government in emergency management, earthquake preparedness, and
the use of relief programs.
Seismic Safety Commission (SSC)
The nonpartisan Seismic Safety Commission (SSC) was established by the
California legislature in 1975 to improve earthquake safety in California.
To accomplish this, the Commission works with federal, state and local
agencies, as well as the private sector, on a variety of activities
including issuing policy studies, sponsoring legislation, and coordinating
seismic safety activities through oversight and leadership. The
Commission is also responsible for: (1) annually revising the California
Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program; (2) implementing Chapter 250,
Statutes of 1986, which requires local governments to inventory hazardous
buildings, develop a mitigation plan, and report to the Commission; (3)
reviewing the state's progress in preparing for the inevitable
earthquakes; (4) pursuing programs to strengthen state-owned buildings
that lack seismic resistance; (5) studying the effects of the 1989 Loma
Prieta (Bay Area) earthquake to assist in the preparation for earthquakes
of an equal or greater magnitude; (6) advising the Legislature and the
Administration on seismic safety policies and issues; and (7) conducting
research and development studies on earthquake safety in public buildings.
V. Los Angeles Area Mitigation Efforts
Because of the tremendous pressure on local governments to meet the most
immediate needs of their constituents, post- disaster efforts revolve
around short-term recovery instead of long-term mitigation. However, even
within this more limited sphere, local governments are finding that they
can address less than half of the repair and rebuilding needs. After the
Northridge earthquake, the City and County of Los Angeles immediately set
up new offices and ad hoc groups to plan for post-earthquake recovery.
However, only a few of these task forces are considering mitigation needs
in their damage assessments and recommendations.
City of Los Angeles
The Mayor's Blue Ribbon Panel on Seismic Hazard Reduction was established
in 1993 to identify seismic risks and promote voluntary and mandatory
retrofitting. The Panel is comprised of five subcommittees: Buildings,
Structures, and Lifelines; Seismic Risk; Land Use and Construction;
Insurance, Banking, and Real Estate; and Educational Programs and
The City's Task Force on Evaluating Damage from the Northridge Earthquake
consists of 15 subcommittees, which are charged with investigating
earthquake damage in buildings with selected design or site
characteristics, such as cripple walls, sloping hillside lots, and
slab-on-grade construction. The subcommittees are expected to report
their findings and recommendations in August 1994.
The City Council of Los Angeles also has an active Ad Hoc Committee on
Earthquake Recovery which has drafted and approved numerous ordinances
related to hazard mitigation issues. The Committee continues to meet on
an ongoing basis. The City Council recently approved an ordinance which
requires all new construction projects to include gas shut-off valves.
County of Los Angeles
As a first step to recovery, the County Office of Recovery (COR) was
created to develop a strategic plan for restoring government services
impacted by the Northridge disaster. COR consists of representatives from
various County offices, including the Community Development Commission and
Office of Emergency Management, as well as other personnel experienced in
facilities and social recovery. The task of developing an action plan for
recovery has been placed in the hands of a Recovery Coordinators Task
Force made up of local officials involved in directing recovery efforts
and filing FEMA claims.
In June 1994 voters rejected Measure 1A, a proposed $2 billion bond issue
earmarked for earthquake relief. The resulting lack of funds caused
Governor Pete Wilson to cancel a $575 million California Natural Disaster
Assistance Program, which was to have provided loans for housing
reconstruction. The loss of the State loans cast doubt on the future of
2,750 apartment buildings, primarily in the San Fernando Valley and
Hollywood, that had been vacated because of earthquake damage. An
additional 28,000 houses and apartment units could be abandoned as owners
and tenants lose faith that repair funds can be obtained. These losses
would diminish the affordable housing stock and increase blight.
However, in August 1994, President Clinton responded to an appeal from Los
Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan by asking Congress to redistribute $225
million from highway and school retrofitting projects. With these funds,
the cities of Los Angeles and Santa Monica would be able to make 30-year,
no-interest deferred loans to owners of damaged buildings. It is
estimated that the new money will help rebuild 17,000 units, or about half
the number that Mayor Riordan has said are at risk for lack of the
necessary funds. Loans will be targeted to "ghost towns," crime-infested
enclaves of vacant, damaged buildings.
- National Earthquake Strategy Working Group for White House Office of
Science and Technology Policy. National Earthquake Strategy, revised
draft, Washington, DC, June 28, 1994, p.7.
- Federal Emergency Agency, "Hazard Mitigation Grant Program: Interim
Guidance", Washington, DC, June 1992, p. 2-4.
- Office of Management and Budget, "Six Months after the Northridge
Earthquake: A Look Back at the Federal Response", Washington, DC, July 27,
1994, p. 2.
- Ibid, p. A-2.
- "59 Federal Register" 36692, July 19, 1994
- Program and its findings are described in the Seismic Safety
Commission, "California at Risk; Reducing the Earthquake Hazards, 1987 to
1992", Sacramento, CA, December 31, 1991.
- Dawley, Gregory, Assistant Chief of Staff. Office of the Mayor. City of
Los Angeles. Letter. January 11, 1995.
- Doug Smith, "Quake Recovery Program Cancelled", Los Angeles Times, June
- Doug Smith, "Cisneros, Riordan Tour Quake "Ghost Towns", Los Angeles
Times, August 5, 1994.
- Hugo Martin, "More Funds for Quake 'Ghost Towns' Sought", Los Angeles
Times, August 3, 1994.
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