Thousands of Soft-Story Structures Still Need Retrofitting

Since the Northridge quake, little has been done to prepare some soft-story structures

By Julie Jessup and Gordon Tokumatsu
|  Friday, Feb 4, 2011  |  Updated 11:15 PM PDT
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In the 17 years since the Northridge quake, many earthquake-prone cities have mandated that buildings be retrofitted to prevent such collapses. But enforcement is either slow, or non-existent.

In the 17 years since the Northridge quake, many earthquake-prone cities have mandated that buildings be retrofitted to prevent such collapses. But enforcement is either slow, or non-existent.

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It's been 17 years since the Northridge earthquake, but thousands of soft-story structures in Los Angeles remain unfit to handle a similar tremor.

In December, officials finished work on the first-ever Southern California Catastrophic Earthquake Plan. The plan has been in the works since the deadly Northridge quake in 1994.

The plan suggests that apartment buildings that are classified as "soft structure" are retrofitted to presumably withstand a strong earthquake.

"Soft-story structures are where the front of the building is very open with glass or garage space, like tuck-under parking," said Steven Saunders, president of Saunders Commercial Seismic Retrofit, a specialty contractor.

According to Caltech, there are more than 20,000 soft-structure apartment buildings in the city of Los Angeles alone. Only 800 of those have been seismically retrofitted, according to the Department of Building and Safety.

Some Southern California cities have mandated that buildings be retrofitted to prevent collapses like the one at Northridge Meadows Apartments, where 16 people died during the Northridge earthquake. But progress on such renovations has been painfully slow -- and almost non-existent.

"It's a tough economic time for lenders and it's not cheap to retrofit a soft-story structure," said attorney Joel Castro, who represents the families of victims of the Northridge Meadows collapse. "And so it's Russian roulette. Should I fix it? Should I go to the bank and lower my chances of risk, or should I just continue to let my tenants, the Fed-Ex guy, [or] the post office guy that come into my building be subject to injury or death?"

Some construction companies specialize in "fixing" these soft-story buildings, like Saunders Seismic Retrofit. The retrofitting, which essentially consists of filling open spaces at the bottom of buildings with steel support beams, can come at a high price.

Castro said that to retrofit a large building could cost more than $100,000. That's why many cities are simply "putting off" the updates.

"All the seismologists and structural engineers have predicted a 7.0 earthquake in Southern California in the next decade or so," Castro said.

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