Cities Rethink Earthquake Plans
California temblor spurs efforts to upgrade building codes and emergency response plans. SHAKE-PROOFING CITIES
LOS ANGELES — THE temblor that shook San Francisco like a tuning fork is spurring one of the largest looks at earthquake readiness in US history. From Seattle to St. Louis, planners and politicians in risky seismic areas are scheduling emergency drills, dusting off evacuation and safety plans, and looking at tougher building codes.
While many experts expect the flurry of concern to be short-lived, they note that any move toward greater prevention and preparedness is a step in the right direction:
Memphis, Tenn., which abuts the dangerous New Madrid Fault, is considering adopting building codes with seismic standards for the first time. Although the controversial regulations have been in the works for two years, their chance of passage has improved with the California quake.
In Missouri, state highway and transportation officials have dispatched engineers to calculate what it would cost to bring older bridges and double-decker freeways up to standard.
In Olympia, Wash., a state lawmaker plans to introduce legislation establishing an agency to coordinate prevention activities, similar to the Seismic Safety Commission in California.
In Los Angeles, which may already be the nation's best-prepared area, City Council members have ordered building inspectors to review progress on a program to upgrade unreinforced masonry buildings. Two local bond measures are being drafted to raise money for earthquake repairs.
``The California quake has kicked up everyone's awareness,'' says Marty Walsh, building commissioner for St. Louis. ``It has made certain things people wanted to do easier, and made areas that didn't have any codes think about getting them.''
Experts agree the country needed a wake-up call. Outside of California, few areas are prepared to handle a major seismic event.
And one could happen. While the threat may not be as imminent as along the San Andreas fault, other regions of the country do lie in earthquake-prone zones.
Among the most potentially headstrong is the New Madrid fault, an underground rift that runs from Illinois to Arkansas. It puts in jeopardy a host of cities in the Midwest and South: Little Rock, Ark.; Evansville, Ind.; Memphis; St. Louis.
Further east, the country is webbed by deeper and lesser-understood faults. Although these too are less active than their brethren in California, they can rise up with unusual distemper, as was evidenced by the quake that destroyed much of Charleston, S.C., in 1886.
Out west, the Wasatch fault slips perilously close to Salt Lake City. Portland, Ore., and Seattle lie in potentially active seismic areas as well.
Few of these areas can afford to be cavalier about their preparations. To begin with, many cities in the Midwest and East have older buildings, bridges, sewer systems, and other arteries than in the far West.
Seismic building codes - a first rampart in earthquake defense - are scarcer and usually less stringent. Only 22 states have mandatory building codes. The rest leave it up to cities and counties to govern. These typically include seismic standards. Yet some jurisdictions have adopted standards and deleted the seismic sections, believing they weren't necessary. Even in those areas that do have seismic codes, the regulations vary in strength and in the degree they are enforced.
``There are few places east of the Rockies that are concerned with seismic regulations,'' says James Smith, executive director of the Building Seismic Safety Council, a national group. ``We have a long ways to go.''
Some areas are beginning to make the journey.
In Memphis, the Bay Area quake has refocused attention on an attempt to fashion the city's first seismic codes, which until now haven't moved very quickly. The strictures have drawn opposition from some developers because of their cost and the belief that the risk of an earthquake didn't warrant them.
Studies have shown that seismic codes (depending on their stringency) can add as little as 1 percent to the cost of a new building or as much as 10 percent, if it is an odd shape or is being built on soft ground. For cities trying to attract new business, that can be a tough decision to make.
A revised set of rules is expected to come up before Memphis city and county officials by the end of the year.
``The California quake has catalyzed the whole process here,'' says Arch Johnston, director of the Center for Earthquake Research and Information at Memphis State University.
In Utah, the quake has buttressed the case of state geologists and engineers who were pushing to see the area's building codes upgraded another notch.
In Seattle, new energy is being put into move to revise the city's disaster plan. Several double-decked roads and older bridges, as well as unreinforced schools and other structures, are getting a fresh look.
At the state level, Rep. Dick Nelson is considering legislation to force an inventory of vulnerable transportation and utility systems in the state.
``I think the main emphasis is going to be on infrastructure,'' says Peter May, a political science professor at the University of Washington, who has written books on federal disaster policy.
The question is how long the focus on earthquake readiness will last and how much concrete change it will spur. Experts say the San Francisco temblor has jarred Americans far more than the Mexico City or Armenia quakes.
They expect few cities to begin retrofitting large numbers of old buildings. That would be prohibitively expensive.
Yet just debate over safety is salutary. As Peter May puts it: ``It useful for us to be reminded we live in a hazardous world.''