Is your home safe in an earthquake?

September 17, 2009 6:52:41 PM PDT
Is your home safe in an earthquake? That is a subject of much discussion around the Bay Area, especially around this time of year as we approach the anniversary of the Loma Prieta quake. It is not an easy question to answer.

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Natural disasters tend to pick winners and losers with little regard for what we believe will happen. One Marina building falls down during the quake, the one next door sustains little damage. And it is that apparent randomness, along with disguised dangers, that makes it hard to pick a home to buy or to decide whether or not to buy earthquake insurance.

The San Francisco Marina District became the poster child of the 1989 quake. Television images of the destruction were broadcast around the globe.

Bob Figone lived it all first-hand. His house took a hit, but did not fall down or burn. He did not have earth quake insurance, but light damage along with inexpensive FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) loans made for a fairly quick repair and retrofit.

Construction is better now and we know more about how earth quakes work. Especially for homeowner David Schwartz, an earthquake geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Before buying his home, Schwartz went down to Danville's City Hall.

"And I spent the entire day reading through these reports looking at where landslides had been, what they had done with landslides, learning that this whole valley had been filled in, reading what they did with the fill, how they engineered it, how they instrumented it," said Schwartz.

So what does an average person do who can't read those reports? The answer is not a good one. Buy a home and you will receive disclosures, but Schwartz says they are usually too vague to be much value. Plus, looking around at a neighborhood can give you a false sense of security.

"This was a big valley, and when they developed the subdivision they cut the tops of the slopes and pushed it all down to the valley and built this nice flat surface," said Schwartz when describing the safety of the homes on the flat land compared to those up on the hill. "Fill responds differently to shaking, and in fact if that house on the hill slope is on rock, rock dampens the effects of shaking and the fill can actually amplify or increase the effects of shaking."

The most careful, or wealthy, among us will consult with structural and soil engineers as well as geologists. And if your home is perched on a hillside, there is some safety in knowledge.

"So it is always, in the end, up to the buyer," said Schwartz.

There are no easy ways to find answers and the answers out there often do not come cheap.

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