COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | THOMAS ELIAS

Comprehensive earthquake data must be made available

Anyone who has seen the epicenter of a major earthquake within days of its hitting knows that California’s legal and scientific priorities have lately been seriously skewed.

Now put these recent events together: First, the state Legislature passes and Gov. Jerry Brown signs a new law to require development of a comprehensive statewide earthquake early warning system. Estimated initial cost will be $80 million.

Next comes a report detailing how the state’s effort to map all its significant earthquake faults has slowed almost to a stop. This began just after the 1971 Sylmar temblor, which destroyed a veterans hospital, among other things. That quake occurred on a fault no one previously knew existed, and for 20 years mapping was a priority, with 534 maps published detailing active faults.

But since 1991, the Los Angeles Times reports, just 23 more maps have been drawn, none from 2004 to 2011 because of budget cuts. About 300 more faults must be mapped.

Then word arrives that a multicampus team of University of California scientists funded by the National Science Foundation has identified about 1,500 of the most apparently quake-vulnerable buildings in Los Angeles, using public records and a walking survey.

Trouble is, the academics won’t give their list to the mayor so he can start doing something about it. Because they can’t be sure all buildings on their list are really at risk, the scientists fear they could face lawsuits from building owners if they finger structures that are actually sound — something only an on-site assessment can determine.

The question arising from these three almost simultaneous autumn developments: How do you create a comprehensive warning system if you don’t know where all the faults lie? And how do you warn the people most at risk if you don’t know what buildings they’re in?

The warning system legislative sponsor, Democratic state Sen. Alex Padilla of Los Angeles, insists that while mapping precise locations of all faults is “very important,” it’s still not crucial to early warnings.

“Once energy starts to emanate from the epicenter, waves go out,” the MIT mechanical engineering graduate says. “Energy moves faster than the actual shaking, so depending on how far you are from the epicenter, you might get between 15 and 60 seconds warning, as they do in Japan. That can be crucial if you’re a surgeon in an operation or a train engineer or in a car going over a bridge.”

Padilla agrees that fixing buildings to cut casualties is critical. The first step in getting information needed to do that must be to immunize the scientists who have pinpointed dangerous buildings.

If Los Angeles and other cities are to undertake a retrofitting campaign as thorough as one now authorized in San Francisco, they need that information. Nothing should be withheld for fear of lawsuits.

So it’s necessary to free seismologists and structural engineers from the danger of lawsuits. That can be done with special acts of the Legislature and Congress if earthquake safety is a true priority.

If lawmakers don’t do that, their priorities are fouled up. As usual, some might say.

It’s hard for anyone who hasn’t seen the sheer power of a major earthquake up close to understand how urgent this problem is. California has seen no big quakes in major population areas in almost 20 years, creating a false sense of security.

But action is needed. The comprehensive warning system should be online within two years. Padilla is correct when he says it can operate even without some key information, but adding that information can help prevent many casualties and a lot of damage. So we need to know where quakes might strike and who is most at risk.

Yes, the maps drawn since 1971 give far more information than anyone had before then. But the biggest quakes of the last 40 years have come in unanticipated places, generally along unmapped faults. So even with an early warning, all information on possibly unsafe buildings must be checked out, no matter what legislative manipulation it takes.

Without adequate information, the good done by warnings could be minimized. Warnings should be targeted as precisely as possible and that can be done if lawmakers, both state and federal, forget partisanship and concentrate on saving lives.

Elias is the author of “The Burzynski Breakthrough,” available in a soft-cover fourth edition. His email address is tdelias@aol.

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