Earthquake Protection the Hard Way

GELFAND’S WORLD--It's about to get real.


We've mentioned the simple earthquake preparedness stuff like keeping a supply of water. But how about doing a substantial rebuild on the building in which you live? 

I'm about to learn what that is like. 

We've previously reported at CityWatch that it will no longer be legal to own and rent buildings that are described by the term "soft story."  What this means: When the living area of a building is directly above the parking area, and there is not adequate support for the building itself, that is what is called a soft story building. 

You probably drive past them every day without even noticing. They are all over town because this is Los Angeles and parking is scarce. The problem is that those little bitty poles you see that separate parking spaces aren't enough to support the second and third stories in the event of a serious earthquake. We have seen the resulting examples in Northridge and in other parts of the world. 

Soft story buildings probably present the worst danger for loss of life in the event of a big earthquake, because the second story pancakes down and loses its structural integrity. 

As reported previously here, the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance that requires seismic retrofitting for these buildings. Because the deadline is near, the retrofits are happening now, all over the city. 

And I'm about to learn what that means in practice. I have a little glimmering of what it's like because a building a block away did a garage retrofit job about a year ago. 

They jackhammer the foundations around the garage walls. This goes on for a long time. In our recent experience, it was weeks. 

Near the end of the job, they erect steel beams that introduce the strength that should have been designed into the building originally. 

In the meantime, they reinforce the foundations where those beams will go. Apparently there are city inspections at various stages along the way and, as you might guess, a shortage of inspectors. 

How are my fellow tenants reacting to the news? The most common complaint is that nobody told us what the job is actually going to be, so we don't really know how long we will have to park somewhere else. 

When I spoke to the contractors on the phone, I got the usual bureaucratic runaround. "You received a notification" 

Yes, that's true. And it was delivered to my door (and then by mail) several weeks ago. 

But what did the notification actually say? That's a little harder to piece together. 

The front has the title Notice of Seismic Retrofit Work. To me, that's encouraging, because I will live in a safer place when the work gets done. The notice also lists a two month window for the work to be done. In this case, the work was supposed to start on Monday (it didn't) so they are already nearly a week late. In their defense, they had some people walking around spray painting locations on the ground on Tuesday. 

The problem was the telephone call I received on Monday, telling me that work would begin the next day and that I had to have my car out of the garage no later than 8 a.m. every weekday. By asking around, I found that the work won't really start until Friday. In the meanwhile, most of my fellow tenants have dutifully been parking on the street overnight. I guess nobody bothered to call them to explain the delay. 

In looking through the notification form, I managed to find the following wording buried on the tenth page out of twelve: 

"Will the seismic retrofit work affect any occupied unit?" The following answer is typed in: 

"Various parking stalls affected during construction hours of 8.00 a.m. through 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday." 

Now that's what I call a non-answer. It didn't specifically mention my garage so how was I to know until I got a call from a person who, incidentally, didn't like the way I responded. 

What I had to say: Nobody here knows what you will be doing and when you will be doing it. I don't know how long I will have to find parking elsewhere. 

The other point I made that my caller found combative(to use her wording): I said that the company doing the work should have had a meeting with the tenants where they would have explained what the job will be, how long each particular garage will be off limits to daytime parking, and what other issues (jackhammer noise comes to mind) we will be dealing with. 

When I got a return call from the managing director, I was told that he couldn't be at such a meeting before the construction work starts. He did agree to meet with us next week, so I'll credit him with that. 

Think of it as getting a tooth filled 

Most people aren't aware, but in the days before modern dentistry, cavities often progressed not only to the "tooth ache" stage, but formed abscesses that could ultimately kill you. People did die of them. 

So it is with soft story buildings. They are minor cavities that could, in the event of a serious quake, kill you. 

The seismic retrofit is intended to prevent all those bad things, and I support the city ordinance wholeheartedly. What I don't support is being kept in the dark about how the job will affect my life over the next couple of months. It may be some minor inconvenience, and it may be some really annoying jackhammering right under my window. 

In writing this piece and talking to the construction people, I came to realize that our neighborhood council system has actually accomplished something: When it comes to public works, we get notifications and presentations where city officials explain things in detail. There is generally a chance for public questions, and when the answers are not immediately forthcoming, we get a follow up. There is nearly the same level of service from the movie productions that leave us notifications of what will be happening -- simulated gunfire is something that locals have a right to be warned about. 

We don't have the same information about the retrofit process. If it turns out to be entirely benign, I will report back in a couple of months.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at