7 On Your Side: Earthquake, financial costs, and retrofit questions

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When a major earthquake hits, it may be up to you to decide if it is safe to enter a building or not.

When a major earthquake hits, how do you know when it's safe to return to your home or office? 7 On Your Side went to the experts for answers and the answer isn't as obvious as you might think. Here's what you need to know to make sure you don't walk into danger.

When the shaking has stopped and there's damage all around, you may be wondering if it's safe to go back inside your home or office. And after an earthquake, may be on your own to decide.

"The scope of the damage, there's stuff everywhere and windows are broken. Those are not structural issues and usually it's OK to be in your building in a post-earthquake period," said San Francisco chief building inspector Lawrence Kornfield.

He has evaluated hundreds of buildings after earthquakes, but he says you can do some judging for yourself. One main rule of thumb to keep in mind is outside a building can be just as dangerous as inside, maybe worse. That is especially true during aftershocks.

Kornfield said, "Standing right outside a building where something might fall off the faade of the building, some piece of brick or a cornice or a window frame or something, stay away from areas right outside buildings. That's in fact where many injuries occur."

You don't want a building collapsing on you and to predict that, there is one main thing to look for.

"Is there a noticeable or significant lean to the building? If there is, it's possible an aftershock could cause some kind of further movement," Kornfield said.

If your house is partially collapsed or there's obvious tipping and leaning, it's best to stay out. You should also consider the condition of supporting pillars.

"If you see posts or columns that are off their bases or that are not, don't look like they're properly supporting the things they used to support, that's definitely a sign you shouldn't go in," Kornfield said.

If your building is made of solid concrete, cracks could be a sign of real danger, especially if the cracks from an X-shape. Finally, if your building is made of brick and you see very large cracks, stay away from it. Even if it's been reinforced, chunks of brick could fall on you. A few other hints: multi-story buildings with a garage on the ground floor may be more prone to collapse. If your building is on a corner, it's also more likely to fall that one that's wedged in a solid row of buildings.

Something also good to know -- cracks in plaster or broken windows may look unsightly, but the building is likely still structurally sound and safe to go inside.

VIDEO: Quake victims struggle to deal with financial cost

What government help is available for those who suffered so many losses? 7 On Your Side has been looking into that.

So far government help has been fairly sparse, but that could change.

Debris that was scattered across Napa is now being hauled to temporary dumps. Homeowners insurance doesn't cover earthquake losses -- that's what Antonio Varra of Napa just found out.

"I already spoke with them. They say insurance won't cover that because I don't have earthquake insurance," Varra said.

Few carry earthquake insurance and even those who do often have deductibles of $50,000-$1000,000, so there is little help there.

The governor has declared a state of emergency, but that does not trigger any direct aid to citizens. Direct aid doesn't come until the president declares a disaster.

"If it is a national disaster, then funds can come in that cover about 75 percent of the state's expenses and homeowners who are affected with uncovered losses can actually get grants and low interest disaster loans, and they can get temporary housing," Joe Ridout from Consumer action said.

The president can declare a disaster now, weeks from now, or never.

"FEMA will consult with the governor and other state officials and will make a recommendation on whether it should be a national disaster, but it is ultimately it is strictly the president's call. Anybody who can put pressure on the president to make that judgment it would be in their interests, if they are one of the effected parties," Ridout said.

So if you are in clean up mode, it would be a good idea to keep track of all of your losses.

"Last night, I dropped some stuff off for my child's mother and their whole house was destroyed on the inside, everything. On Tuesday she called me and asked me to bring some of the stuff back because the insurance company needs to see it and she never took any pictures," said Napa resident Steve Spingola.

There is one chance he can document the items.

"My son took a video and placed it on Facebook, so maybe they will see that," Varra said.

And if your house wasn't hurt it is a good idea to document what you have now by walking through your home with a smartphone rolling video.

7 On Your Side: Is retrofitting worth the cost?

More than 100 buildings in Napa were so badly damaged they were red-tagged as unsafe. What is even more distressing is some of them had been retrofitted to prevent this kind of destruction. 7 On Your Side takes a look at retrofits that didn't seem to help.

Many property owners thought they had done all the right things. They had the foresight and spent thousands of dollars to strengthen their building, only to watch them crumble in the quake. So is it worthwhile to spend all that money on an upgrade?

The historic Napa County Courthouse, a building in Downtown Napa and a former home of the Sam Kee Laundry building have two things in common -- all suffered significant damage and all were retrofitted.

Richard Feldstein is with the Napa County Superior Court. He said, "Well it's very tragic. We know that in the oldest part of the building, the 1870 portion, there's significant damage. How much of it is cosmetic and how much is structural, we don't know yet."

The Sam Kee Laundry is the oldest building in Napa and now home to a wine tasting room. Much of its brick facade came crashing to the ground, but its owners say the inside remains largely intact.

"The retrofit that was done in 1999 kept the inside absolutely untouched," Garret Murphy from the Vintner's collective said.

Mary Comerio is professor of architecture at UC Berkeley. She says retrofitting has its limits. She told ABC7, "When we ask for a building to be retrofitted, we're not saying that the building be functional and operational after an earthquake. Simply that retrofitting involves making the building safer so people don't lose their lives."

No deaths have been blamed on the earthquake. But Comerio thinks the story might be different had the quake struck at noon instead of 3:20 a.m.

Tom Hui is director of the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection. He says without a doubt, people should retrofit their homes and offices. He told ABC7 News, "first of all when you do it, it's better than not doing it because if you didn't do it, it definitely will fail."

"We'll repair it with love and if the city permits and the engineers say it's a possibility, we'll take off the whole faade and build it up from scratch exactly the way it was before," Murphy said.

The number one thing to do with a retrofit is to anchor a building to its foundation. And while upgrades may not prevent all damage, they could be enough to save your life.

One side note, the Sam Kee Laundry building, now a wine tasting room, is designated an historic site by the National Park Service. Its owner successfully sued to overturn discriminatory laws that banned Chinese laundries in Napa back in 1887.
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