Left Coasting : On Edge

Earthquakes, insurance and building codes – home, and away

by Rosalea Barker

“May God have mercy on you as He did on this publican.” Thank heavens for small typos, is all I can say! It’s not that I was in danger of taking seriously the publication in which that sentence appeared, but it had been thrust into my hands at a bus stop on the Monday after the 9.0 earthquake in Japan and I was a tad more receptive than usual to its headline (I’ll spare you ALL the caps):

“The end of the world is almost here! HOLY GOD will bring judgment day on May 21, 2011.”

We’re kind of a bit on edge here in California. On March 11, having been horrified by the TV news images of what had happened in northeastern Japan overnight, I was seeing way too many “soft first story” buildings on my way to work. Someone on the bus was called by a friend who wanted to know if he was safe from the tsunami—“Don’t worry, I’m about 20 feet above sea level,” he replied. At work, a colleague was called by a friend with a similar concern.

Overnight, residents of Santa Cruz, a small harbor town on the San Mateo coast just south of San Francisco, had fled in their cars to Skyline Boulevard, hundreds of feet above sea level. And on Monday, after hearing the news of the damage to nuclear power reactors thousands of miles across the Pacific, they cleaned out at least one local pharmacy of iodine tablets. Rumor has it that you can get custom-fitted, designer tin-foil hats in Santa Cruz, but I put the Cruzians’ extreme reaction down to the power of being subjected to dramatic video over and over again, until it seems like what it depicts is your own new reality.

Of course, for some people it IS the new reality. And at the same time as we count ourselves lucky not to be in the midst of it, we know that it’s just a matter of time before another Big One hits the Golden State. Between 1836 and 1911, there were 18 damaging earthquakes of magnitude 6.0 or greater in Northern California, then none that large until 1984, when the frequency seems to have resumed again. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, centered in the Santa Cruz mountains, was followed in 1994 by the Northridge earthquake in Southern California, and both caused substantial damage to buildings and infrastructure in major metropolitan areas.

In Illusions of Safety, published in 1998, Risa Palm and John Carroll reported on research that was done following the Northridge and Kobe (1995) earthquakes comparing Japanese and Californian attitudes to earthquake hazard response. They found that, when it comes to public policy, “the Japanese generally prefer measures related to warning and evacuation, while the Americans prefer measures to strengthen public buildings and infrastructure.” Californians were more likely to have personal survival kits, whereas Japanese believed it was better to have a communal supply located by city block. Sadly, all the tsunami evacuation sirens and routes and relief centers in the world would not have been much use in the face of this year’s calamity.

In another 1998 book Disaster Hits Home, UC Berkeley Professor of Architecture Mary Comerio (currently in Christchurch conducting building inspections) looks at the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes in terms of what might be learned for urban housing recovery after catastrophic events. It was from this book that I had learned the term “soft first story”. In the States, the ground floor is called the first story, and because of the small lots that developers build on in cities, they usually put parking space underneath a couple of stories of apartments. So there are virtually no supporting walls at ground level.

You’d think there’d be a building code for that, right? Sure. But building codes are hammered out not just by architects, engineers, and building officials, but by the building industry itself, which is largely controlled by developers and real estate interests. They naturally want to keep costs down, so the end result is a compromise between best practice and market forces, according to Disaster Hits Home. Comerio also contends that the most important factor in a good housing recovery is the system of finance for housing repairs.

Fewer than 12 percent of homeowners in California have earthquake insurance, if the California Earthquake Authority is to be believed. Commercial insurers expect homeowners to cover the first 10-15 percent of the cost of repairs—which can amount to about $35,000, given that the median house price in the state in 2010-11 is $309,000, according to the Californian Association of Realtors. It would cost less than that to retrofit most homes, but very few people do that.

I had been reading those two books because of the earthquakes in Christchurch. Here in California, those events seem to have happened such a long time ago now, but just because they’ve been eclipsed by the news from Japan doesn’t mean their effects have gone away. People in Christchurch are exhausted by lack of sleep from worrying about the constant aftershocks and those in the worst-hit suburbs are worn down by the daily effort it takes to do menial tasks. No amount of gussying up your long drop makes it preferable to having a loo that actually flushes.

For what it’s worth, here is my own “soft first story”, written two weeks after the February 22 earthquake:

I learned of it when I was checking Scoop’s mobile site and saw their Breaking News post about an earthquake in Christchurch. My first thought was that something had gone wrong with Scoop’s server and it was regurgitating stories from last September.

But in a split second I realized this was no regurgitation—well, of the sand and water beneath Christchurch, perhaps, but not of news stories. It being mid-afternoon on the Presidents Day holiday in the US, and me not having cable television, I turned to the channels that carry half-hour news shows from around the world and found an extensive report on Japan’s national broadcaster NHK’s Newsline.

I wept. Later in the week, I got angry. One of the many workmates who came by my desk in the week following the disaster to ask if I was personally affected and to commiserate with the people in Christchurch was taken aback when I told him the source of my anger. “Didn’t you see that pancaked building?” I asked, “They should never have let people back into it after the first earthquake.” “It was just a parking building,” he replied, “You can tell that by the gaps without walls between the floors.”

We were talking about the Pyne Gould building, which I later learned from this story “barely had a folder tip over” in September. Both it and the Canterbury Television building seem to have suffered from a phenomenon that structural engineers call “eccentricity”, which a Tokyo University professor took pains to describe on an NHK Newsline program later in the week. Not that everyone agrees with him, as this news story in the Daily Yomiuri Online attests.

NHK Newsline continues to be my main source of television news about the earthquake. I can get only one US national network news program over the air, CBS’s Evening News, and the earthquake story briefly toppled the Middle East from the lead story spot. Local TV news also often led with earthquake-related stories: there was an interview with a Cantabrian living in San Francisco, who was getting his news from TVNZ 7 online, and with a Kiwi engineer at UC Berkeley. The focus of that interview was his remark that NZ uses the same building code as California. Another reporter did an extensive piece comparing the land type in Christchurch to that of the Marina District of SF, which was badly damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

At some point during the week following the quake, I had to stop looking at the Christchurch Press online, because the personal stories that were now emerging were too distressing. (And, hey, I’m just reading them, not living them.) And my anger at some amorphous “they” who’d let people back into dangerous buildings, turned to anger at Mother Nature. How could she do this to my Kiwi peeps? Peeps who pride themselves on trying to protect her environment and creatures.

[Let’s hope She’s not in cahoots with HOLY GOD!]