Japan quake serves as reminder for Californians

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — The devastating earthquake in Japan has served as a painful reminder of the fact that California has struggled on a number of fronts to protect the state from the next big one, namely when it comes to bolstering at-risk buildings.

California’s five-year-old program for helping cash-strapped public schools seismically retrofit their most vulnerable buildings has so far disbursed only a tiny portion of the $200 million set aside under the effort. The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, damaged in the 1989 earthquake, still hasn’t been replaced. Thousands of old hospitals and apartment buildings remain despite being at serious risk in a quake.

“Everybody owns risk if you live in earthquake country,” said David Bonowitz, a structural engineer. “And individuals have to be responsible for their own risks just like public policymakers and city officials have their own responsibilities.”

Since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco Bay area and the 1994 Northridge temblor near Los Angeles, billions of dollars have been spent on retrofitting thousands of unreinforced brick buildings, roads, bridges and university buildings.

Still, experts say thousands of potentially dangerous concrete school buildings, high-rise apartments and hospitals that were built before California changed its building code in 1976 have not even been identified. The especially vulnerable buildings were made with “non-ductile” concrete, which was used in older structures and did not hold up well after the recent quake in New Zealand.

Craig Comartin, a former president of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, said the state has 25,000 to 30,000 non-ductile concrete buildings.

Bonowitz said the main mistake planners have made in the state’s approach to preparedness is thinking everything can be addressed before the next disaster. Earthquake safety experts now realize the focus should be on shoring up structures that will help a community rebound quickly — hospitals, large apartment buildings and schools.

“Go after buildings the community will need after the earthquake that are key to community resilience,” Bonowitz said. “Structural problems are important, but we need to know the occupancy and use of the building too.”

Meanwhile, $7.2 billion will be spent to replace the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which is scheduled to be opened to traffic by the end of 2013, and has become the largest public works project in state history.

But California has still not met its preparedness goals for school buildings.

The $199.5 million Seismic Mitigation Program, which was approved by voters in 2006 to help schools pay for retrofits, has struggled to find projects that qualify under its strict guidelines. It has awarded just $4.7 million to three districts, according to the state Office of Public School Construction.

The state has identified dozens of school buildings it believes are in danger of collapse in a strong quake, but most continue to be used with no plans of retrofitting, according to documents and interviews.

“This is just one more example of things we’re not doing to make sure our children are safe and educated,” said Carol Kocivar, president of the California PTA. “It’s terrible when the safety of children is an afterthought.”

Protecting school buildings from earthquakes has been an enduring debate over the years in California.

In 1999, California’s Legislature passed a law that required the state to conduct an inventory of all public school buildings made of concrete that were constructed before modern earthquake safety standards were enacted in 1976.

In 2003, the state Department of General Services, which oversees the program, identified thousands of school buildings using old blueprints, and estimated that billions of dollars were needed to fund retrofit projects — a tall order for many districts already struggling to fund basic school services.

So in 2006, voters approved the program, meant to provide a pool of cash to help schools cope with the costs.

But the program has been plagued by myriad problems: Much of the data needed to identify the most dangerous buildings relied on old blueprints. The result was an inaccurate list of buildings containing information on structures either no longer in use or ones that had been demolished.

In addition, financially struggling districts that actually have unsafe buildings on the list were unwilling to take on the costs and uncertainty of a long retrofit project, even with state help.

“Funding ... to address the most serious public school seismic issues has been languishing with only three projects approved to date,” the state’s Office of Public School Construction wrote in a draft report obtained by The Associated Press.

The report was delivered to the California Seismic Safety Commission on March 10, the day before a 9.0-magnitude quake struck Japan.

To improve the program, officials have provided grants to districts that have buildings identified as the most dangerous in the state.

“One of the biggest challenges we were hearing from districts was the seismic evaluation that is required before they could come forward for the funding,” said Eric Lamoreaux, the acting deputy director of the state Department of General Services. “So the Office of Public School Construction worked to get this grant to go out and get engineers at school districts to get evaluations.”

Of the 16 school districts in California with at-risk buildings, nine chose to participate in the evaluation process.

On Friday afternoon at Oakland Technical High School, dozens of music and theater students attended class in the auditorium, an aged concrete structure on the state’s list. The cavernous concrete building, which is also used for after-school programs and neighborhood meetings, is located near the Hayward fault.

Oakland received a nearly $30,000 structural engineering assessment grant from the state to help identify unsafe buildings and estimate costs of repair. The assessment identified five buildings in the Oakland Unified School District that needed seismic upgrades, with an estimated total cost of $3.6 million to $7.2 million.

The free assessment did little to help: Oakland has no plans to do retrofits anytime soon, said Troy Flint, a spokesman for the district.

“We barely have the resources to even do our core mission of instruction, let alone take on one of these major facilities projects,” Flint said. “It’s really symptomatic of the ... denigration of California’s public education system and its financial status as a whole.”

Another evaluation grant recipient was the Aromas-San Juan Unified School District in Monterey County, where a $17,000 assessment found that seven 1960s-era concrete buildings at San Juan Middle School, located near the San Andreas fault, are susceptible to collapse.

Last summer, a structural engineer found the school needed $900,000 to $1.8 million in work. The district has been told it qualified for a hardship grant to cover the entire cost, but is still waiting to hear from state officials with details.

After years of seismic work in California, much remains to be done just to identify the thousands of dangerous buildings where thousands of residents attend school and live.

“The tough thing about these concrete buildings is that it’s not obvious which are dangerous,” said Comartin. “If I analyze a building built before (code changes), I have to look at drawings and do calculations before I know whether it’s safe or not.”

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