LA Times Quake article

Living in the Red Zone

From Los Angeles Times, February 13, 1994|MICHAEL VENTURA

Living in the Red Zone : The Northridge Quake Tested the Limits of Our Engineering, Revealing That Our City Is Built Beyond the Limits of Our Knowledge. In Post-Illusion L.A., Even the Familiar Won’t Feel the Same.

A few days after the Northridge quake, on the morning when five aftershocks hit within 18 minutes, a geologist or seismologist or some kind of “ologist” assured a local new camera: “This earthquake is continuing in a normal pattern.”

Excuse me, but was that supposed to make us feel any better–that Northridge was a “normal” earthquake?

The TV people evidently thought so. As a good journalist, I should be able to report exactly which stations and which broadcasters I’m referring to, but days after channel-zapping from one quake-cast to another, I couldn’t tell the difference anymore. Whoever they were, the man and woman on camera assumed their most reassuring expressions and most soothing voices, then lectured for several minutes about how we’re not supposed to panic because this was, after all, the normal behavior of a normal quake.

While they spoke, I looked around my cozy West Hollywood apartment at the cracks in my ceilings and walls–cracks I had been officially assured are cosmetic, not structural.

“Cosmetic” means your plaster’s cracking. “Structural” means your building is falling apart. The inspectors were understandable very busy and burdened with an enormous responsibility; imagine the guilt of an inspector who declared a building safe, only to see it fall down. So most inspectors didn’t have time or inclination to stick around and explain that cosmetic cracks occured where there was some structural strain, but in these spots the structure held.

Sitting in my apartment, trying to accept the reassurance of both the inspectors and the broadcasters, I reflected that my building was inspected before the flurry of aftershocks that had just scared the crap out of me. In fact, there have been many aftershocks after the inspection. Therefore, I have a question:

Are all the cracks cosmetic, or have those umpteen aftershocks caused more damage? We’re told that there will be hundreds more. Just because I can’t feel most of them, does that mean my building can’t? The inspectors cannot check every structure after every shock. That’s just not humanly possible. So am I still not to be concerned because this was only the normal behavior of a normal quake?

As often happens when I’m watching television, I couldn’t figure out who was crazy, me or the television. This time I didn’t think it was me.

Don’t be an alarmist, my friends said. I said, What’s more alarming, accepting an unreal version of a dangerous situation or attempting to assess the reality?

ONE ASPECT OF THIS REALITY IS THAT, ALL REASSURANCES aside, Northridge was not a “normal” quake. By that I mean: It was not the quake our politicians and scientists had planned for–insofar as they’d planned at all. State Sen. Tom Hayden of Santa Monica announced two weeks after the quake his discovery that, from fiscal 1990 through fiscal 1993, California spent more money on freeway landscape than on freeway retrofitting. (I emphasize this in italics because it’s the only way I can scream in print.) Since were not allowed to picnic by the sides of freeways, our elected and appointed officials couldn’t have been planning for a picnic, and they certainly weren’t planning for earthquakes. Somehow the people in charge decided it was more important for our freeways to be well-groomed than sturdy.

Well that, at least, is normal. We’ve learned not to expect much from people in charge. But what if the money had been spent for retrofitting instead of landscaping? This seemingly innocent question received a frightening answer when Caltrans’ chief bridge engineer, James Roberts, admitted that retrofitting would not have held up most of the freeways that collapsed in the Northridge quake.

For instance, where the Interstate 5/Antelope Valley Freeway interchange went down, Roberts said, the road swayed 10 feet. Retrofitting planned for that road was calculated for a only a two- to three-foot sway–only 20% or 30% of what was needed. It wouldn’t have saved that interchange.

Not that retrofitting was useless. Far from it. Many damaged brick buildings might have collapsed entirely without retrofitting, and nobody knows how many other freeways might have gone down if they hadn’t been retrofitted. But we’re learning that the variables are such that retrofitting is more a hope than a plan.

Why was Caltrans’ planning about the collapsed interchange so inaccurate? Because nobody knew about the fault that caused the Northridge quake until it shook.

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