Preparing for the "Big One" -- Saving Lives Through Earthquake Mitigation in Los Angeles, CA
THE REMAINING CHALLENGE
Los Angeles is generally well-prepared for earthquakes, with numerous
seismic safety measures already in place. This resilience was on full
display after the Northridge earthquake. According to most sources,
residential structures performed well in minimizing loss of life.
Hospitals continued to function heroically under difficult conditions.
Lifelines were rapidly repaired and services restored to area residents.
Schools reopened quickly and damaged freeways were returned to service in
Nonetheless, significant gaps remain in the region's earthquake mitigation
capacity. The stakes could not be higher it is acknowledged that, in the
absence of aggressive mitigation effort, the number of deaths and injuries
will be much higher in the next major earthquake. A clear challenge
confronts those committed to improving the area's seismic safety-balancing
limited knowledge, finite resources, and competing priorities with the
urgent need for ongoing mitigation. This section presents possible
strategies for addressing deficiencies in the current earthquake
II. Agenda for Future Action
Although Federal, State, and local agencies have mobilized vast resources
for natural disaster response and recovery efforts, the findings of this
report strongly suggest the need for a more proactive commitment to
disaster mitigation strategies that would save lives. The analysis of
mitigation needs presented here reveals a number of opportunities to
facilitate earthquake mitigation. The sheer diversity of these potential
actions reflect the breadth of Los Angeles' identified mitigation needs.
Some of the ideas offered below are specific responses to the situation in
Los Angeles; others are applicable to any community at risk of
earthquakes or other natural disasters. Some actions can be taken
independently; others require partnership among Federal, State and/or
local agencies. Some actions require Federal agencies to take a
leadership role; others are supportive or supplementary in nature.
Finally, some of these actions involve programmatic changes, while others
are regulatory, and still others rely on research or outreach.
Ongoing mitigation efforts in at-risk communities could minimize the loss
of life and property caused by future disasters. Inevitably,
post-disaster efforts focus more on essential recovery and places less
emphasis on mitigation measures. The long-term effectiveness of the
current Federal "mitigation" effort is diminished by being limited to the
immediate post-disaster period, when the more pressing needs of response
and recovery efforts often take precedence. An approach that provides
mitigation assistance to at-risk areas before a disaster may be warranted.
Although FEMA makes available funding for repairs and mitigation, State
and local entities have not fully utilized these funds, perhaps because
they cannot meet the Federal requirement for matching funds. However, an
innovative strategy has been proposed by OES to allow for existing and
budgeted investments in mitigation projects at the state and local level
be considered as allowable match for grant program funds. This concept is
a departure from past practice in meeting cost share requirements on a
project by project basis and recognizes the ongoing commitment to
Relevant Federal assistance programs should be reviewed to identify and
reduce barriers to their use in disaster recovery and mitigation. State
and local efforts to mount needed mitigation efforts may have been slowed
by Federal program rules that make it difficult to apply some forms of
assistance to mitigation or to coordinate their use with other public and
private funds. Even before the Northridge earthquake, HUD launched a
review intended to assess and remove obstacles to the use of CDBG and HOME
for mitigation-related activities. More recently, in November 1994 FEMA
convened an interagency Mitigation Task Force to develop a coordinated
Federal Mitigation Plan.
Financial incentives should be considered to encourage mitigation efforts.
The absence of financial incentives impedes mitigation activities on
several fronts, but most particularly among owners of single-family and
multifamily residential properties. Financial inducements such as lowered
insurance premiums, tax credits, low- or no-interest loans, mortgages, and
grants, can make the implementation of mitigation measures more palatable
to building owners and much easier for regional and local jurisdictions to
enact and enforce.
Los Angeles needs a computerized inventory of buildings within its
jurisdiction, complete with such information as location and type of
construction, that would be useful to planners, seismic safety officials,
and code enforcement inspectors. Because a reliable, automated inventory
of the Los Angeles building stock does not exist, accurate assessments of
the number and types of buildings requiring seismic retrofit cannot be
made. This diminishes the ability of planners and decisionmakers to
identify mitigation needs and priorities.
Further research on vulnerable building types and their seismic
performance needs to be undertaken. Construction types for which research
is urgently needed include steel moment-frame buildings, hillside homes,
and split-level homes. In support of this effort, the creation of an
automated building inventory would enhance the city's ability to locate
and assess earthquake risks and mitigation needs.
A higher level of building inspection and construction code enforcement is
needed. Local governments should insist upon adequate inspection and
enforcement of construction regulations and standards-thus, they have an
obligation to provide qualified and properly trained building inspectors
who have adequate resources to carry out their responsibilities.
Currently, however, there is a lack of resources to conduct inspections
and educate inspectors about current codes and principles of seismic
design. Relevant professional education should be mandatory for building
inspectors. Moreover, structural engineers should be required to observe
construction in order to ensure seismic safety.
In the end, perhaps the most important insight that can be gleaned from
this report is also the simplest: while the disaster recovery period may
be the most propitious time to undertake mitigation activities, these
efforts must not end when the brief spasm of emergency relief and recovery
programs winds down.
Because mitigation is only one of many problems competing for funds and
resources in Los Angeles and other large urban centers, leadership is
needed to ensure that seismic safety remains an important priority for
creating communities of opportunity. Regardless of which specific courses
of action they choose, Federal, State, and local governments must be
steadfast in their commitment to supporting mitigation activities that
will minimize loss of life in future earthquakes and make Los Angeles a
more resilient community. The lives of many of their citizens hang in the
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