Earthquake Fear Rises In California

Apr 4, 2014
Originally published on April 4, 2014 6:22 pm

Geologists say this week’s huge earthquake in Chile is not directly related to two smaller Los Angeles-area earthquakes and one that struck off the Northern California coast recently, even though California has gone for an unusually long time without a significant quake.

In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco killed 63 and injured more than 3,700 people. In 1994, the Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles killed 57 people and injured more than 5,000.

Is California ready for the next big one?

Patrick Otellini, earthquake safety director for the city for San Francisco, joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss California’s preparedness in the event of a large earthquake.


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This is HERE AND NOW from NPR and WBUR Boston. I'm Jeremy Hobson.

And there have already been a couple of earthquakes in Southern California in the last month, including a 5.1 shaker last Friday during an LA Philharmonic concert.


HOBSON: So is California ready for the big one? Patrick Otellini is the city of San Francisco's lead earthquake planner. And Patrick, there was just an 8.2 off the coast of Chile this week. But only a handful of fatalities, it appears. Are there lessons to be learned? Because they do seem to have been well-prepared.

PATRICK OTELLINI: I think what we've learned is - and this is applicable in California as well, is that sometimes we hear reports of magnitude. And magnitude is usually measured at the epicenter. Where you are geographically in relation to that epicenter definitely affects it. So it's not just a number that we associate to earthquakes to kind of figure out how big it is.

There's also, looking at peak ground accelerations, several other factors to really figure out how that damage manifests itself in a hyper-local situation. So damage is really dependent on how that earth is moving, you know, at that particular time, at that particular place.

HOBSON: So it's just luck, basically.

OTELLINI: You know, it's luck. It's a science. But it's not an exact science that we can predict. It's a very difficult thing to try to put your finger on to expect damage. But that's why we have modeling scenarios to try to assess these risk. So we kind of design sometimes for the worst-case scenario, sometimes for the likely scenario. And so I think that's how our building codes have adapted to be able to kind of assume that damage. And, of course, with all those codes in mind, the idea is to protect the loss of life.

HOBSON: But what needs to be done to make cities like yours and like Los Angeles and other cities, for that matter, more prepared for the next big earthquake?

OTELLINI: I think it's a pretty complex, multi-pronged approach. You know, there's making a kit at home. You know, making sure you're prepared personally for the first 72 hours is kind of a good place to start. But the bigger picture we really want to look at, what the city does with our own assets to make sure we're protecting our own buildings and our own infrastructure and then also doing some pretty new, innovative public policy to make sure that the private building stock is retrofitted and ready to withstand a major earthquake.

HOBSON: Like what, though? What do they need to do to these buildings?

OTELLINI: So we see vulnerable populations or children or those that really need special attention. You want to pay a special mind to that in terms of preparedness. Or you look at the construction type of these buildings. Sometimes we know because of construction methods and the vintages that they were built, they need to be retrofitted. And that's true of all construction across the board. Specifically in San Francisco, we know we have a lot of what they call soft-story buildings. These are buildings with lots of garages or lots of commercial storefronts on the ground floor.

And we saw a significant damage at these types of buildings in Loma Prieta in 1989. Southern California saw just as much damage - actually more damage, in 1994 in the Northridge earthquake. So last year we passed a law in San Francisco requiring that these buildings retrofit within the next four to seven years. So in that timeline we'll see about 3,500 multi-family buildings be retrofitted.

HOBSON: Right now, because there have been a couple of earthquakes over the last few weeks in Southern California, people have it on the top of their mind. They're thinking about it. What should I be doing and all that? But six months from now, do you end up in a worse position in terms of preparedness because people aren't thinking about what they might need to do in case of an earthquake?

OTELLINI: You know, I think small earthquakes like this are good wakeup calls for folks. You know, unfortunately we did see some damage in Southern California, and there was a residential building that was red tagged. So you have residents sent out to be relocated temporarily while repairs are happening. And for those of us who think about how this might manifest itself on a big scale, it really makes us open our eyes and understand that, you know, cities need to be prepared to be resilient in the face of disaster because it's not just about surviving, it's about recovering.


Patrick Otellini is chief resilience officer for the city and county of San Francisco and director of the Earthquake Safety Implementation Program there. Patrick, thanks.

OTELLINI: Thank you.

HOBSON: And let us know what you have done to prepare for the next earthquake if you live in California or other parts of the country that have earthquakes at This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.