Are Bay Area buildings ready for a big quake?


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When the Loma Prieta earthquake hit, 27,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Damage from Loma Prieta and a couple of other big quakes soon after, spurred the government to action.

There was extensive research into what types of buildings fell down -- where state and local regulations forced improvements to many brick buildings. But they make up just 1 percent of Bay Area structures.

For other building types, there were new codes enacted -- a major step forward. But there is one critical element missing.

"Those only apply to new buildings, you know the majority of our buildings are older," said architecture professor Mary Comerio from UC Berkeley.

Some older buildings have been retrofitted, mostly public buildings, like one at UC Berkeley and the city halls in Oakland and San Francisco.

But when it comes to privately owned buildings, homes and apartments especially, very few people have taken action.

Mary Lou Zoback: "I think most people given the choice would rather have a granite kitchen than retrofit their home, even though intellectually they know in the long-term that would probably be a better investment."

ABC7's Dan Ashley: "That's tough psychology to get around isn't it?"

Mary Lou Zoback: "It really is."

Zoback spent 20 years with the U.S. Geological Survey and now works for a company that helps insurance companies calculate risk. She wants the government to give property owners better guidelines.

"We don't have any state laws or state regulations that actually codify what a reasonable retrofit consists of," said Zoback.

She says the biggest lesson from the Loma Prieta earthquake is the danger of what are called soft-story buildings, the kind that collapsed in San Francisco's Marina District -- multi-story buildings with garages on the first floor.

Russ Taplin owned a condo.

"A lot of people lost everything that they had," said Taplin.

The building was four stories tall. After the earthquake, it looked as if it had three stories. The ground floor had been open garage space with very few supporting walls.

"If the building rocks, that's what happens in an earthquake, what's going to hold that building up? And the answer is nothing," said Taplin.

Taplin's building was torn down and replaced, but for many, the risk remains. Not every soft-story building is at equal risk. Only a structural engineer can tell for sure.

Soft-story buildings come in lots of styles and sizes; they were built over many decades. San Francisco's Building Inspection Department has spent years studying the issue.

"Loss of life is a serious problem, loss of affordable housing, loss of historical buildings, loss of jobs, there are tremendous impacts all across the board," said Laurence Kornfield from the San Francisco Building Inspection Department.

A recent report prepared for the department recommended owners of large soft-story buildings be required to retrofit unsafe soft-story buildings, but so far that hasn't happened in San Francisco or any other California city.

"We had a structural engineer come out and design a sheer wall for us," said Taplin.

Taplin learned his lesson in the Loma Prieta quake. So when he bought a soft-story apartment building in Oakland, there was no question he would retrofit.

He thinks the government should push harder to get others do the same.

"They may not have a legal responsibility, but there's a major question between legality and morality, and I think they've missed the boat entirely," said Taplin.

Many property owners don't believe the government should force them to spend money. So the key may be persuading people that seismic safety is worth the expense.

"It would cost the private property owner much less to do the retrofit now, rather than repairing his building after the earthquake," said Vivian Day from the Building Inspection Department.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Join us for a one-hour retrospective on the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake on Saturday, October 17 at 10 p.m. and Sunday, October 18 at 7 p.m. We'll look back at the damage, how the Bay Area was forever changed, and what still must be done today to prepare for the next "big one."

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Web exclusive content commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. Includes extended interviews with reporters who covered the quake, as well as city officials and first responders who lived through it all.

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