Hospitals behind on earthquake safety deadline


We all know the Bay Area is riddled with fault lines. Very close to those fault lines are some the area's busiest hospitals. State law says hospitals have to be able to guarantee that can function after a major quake, but one expert claims that's virtually impossible.

David Schwartz is with the United States Geological Survey. He says there is a 63 percent chance of a major earthquake in the Bay Area by 2036.

"It's simply critical that we have hospitals that people can go to and be taken care of," Schwartz said.

After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the state legislature passed the law requiring hospital buildings be built or retro-fitted to remain standing after an earthquake. That was supposed to happen by 2008.

"Compliance for this has been pushed off to 2013, 2015," Schwartz said.

Through public records requests, the ABC7 News I-Team has uncovered at least 120 hospitals statewide will miss the 2013 deadline, including Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose. A portion of its operations are still in older buildings while a new hospital is being built. Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo is still in the planning phase. Marin General Hospital is planning to build a new hospital, but hasn't yet. California Pacific Medical Center is in a fight with the city of San Francisco over building new hospitals.

The hospitals have applied for extensions that could extend until the year 2020 -- 12 years after the original deadline. But, if the state grants an extension, it will come with a catch.

"The hospitals buildings have to be capable of withstanding the forces of the earthquake and remain functional," Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development division chief Paul Coleman said.

State law mandates that by 2030, all hospitals must be capable of taking patients immediately after a quake. Coleman says hospitals that get the extension will have to be ready in 2020 -- 10 years earlier that original 2030 deadline.

One expert has doubts about the state's plan.

"To ensure continuous operation, to me, based on history, based on my hundreds of observations, is practically impossible," earthquake engineer Peter Yanev said.

Yanev has studied the aftermath of more than 100 earthquakes. He claims too many things can go wrong during an earthquake causing a hospital to shut down.

"It's a pipe dream to think we can actually protect the dozens and dozens of miles of all sorts of piping and stuff inside a hospital," Yanev said.

Yanev points to the 2010 8.8 magnitude quake in Chile. His own photos show a hospital's exterior glass remained intact, but the inside was a different story.

"The ceilings have come down here; we can somewhat prevent that, but not completely," he said.

On a recent visit to a Los Angeles hospital, he discovered a major problem -- the equipment wasn't properly anchored.

"The piping is OK; the equipment moves three feet in the earthquake and rips out all of the piping at that end," Yanev said.

"Well you know, the facts don't support that," Coleman said.

Coleman stands by the state's requirements that hospitals must be functioning after a major earthquake by the 2020 and 2030 deadlines. He points to a recent test done at UC San Diego in which a five-story building built to current hospital building codes was setup with medical equipment and put on a shake table to simulate a major earthquake. The building remained standing and the non-structural elements passed the test.

"If you do have good strong building codes and they are properly enforced and complied with, that it is possible to have a building that can withstand earthquake forces," Coleman said.

"It's a worthwhile goal and hospitals have always supported that goal," California Hospital Association spokesperson Jan Emerson-Shea said.

Emerson-Shea says retro-fitting or building new buildings will cost hospitals up to $110 billion and even then, no one really knows if that will be a wise investment.

"We're really not going to know for sure if all these building standards, you know, will prevent serious damage or allow the hospital to continue operating," Emerson-Shea said.

Yanev says hospitals should spend some time and money working on agreements with each other to transfer patients if one hospital should fail to operate in the next big quake.

USGS Earthquake Links

Office of Statewide Health and Planning Development -- Seismic Retrofit Program

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