October 26, 2015 - From the October/November, 2015 issue

Lucy Jones' Priority: Preparing LA for 'The Big One's' Economic Impact

At the 2015 Great ShakeOut Breakfast Leadership Summit held September 30, Dr. Lucy Jones gave remarks covering the expected economic impact of a major earthquake on Los Angeles. She noted the repercussions of interruptions to water and communications systems, as well as uninhabitable buildings, on business in the city. Here, TPR presents an edited transcript of her address. Jones serves as science advisor for risk reduction at the US Geological Survey and was formerly Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s science advisor for seismic safety.


Lucy Jones

" When we have a big earthquake...we are going to lose assets—things will be destroyed—but we also won’t have electricity, water, or open buildings." -Lucy Jones

Lucy Jones: I’m going to spend a bit of time today convincing you that not dying in the coming earthquake is not enough. We need a bigger goal. We need to have a city we still want to live in.

I went down to Christchurch in New Zealand, where they went through a magnitude 6.3 earthquake right under the city. The building codes did what they were supposed to do. People, in general, did not die. There were only two bad buildings—one very old, and one with big design problems. The other buildings did not kill people. But 1,800 had to be torn down.

Somebody there told me: “You can’t consider life safety just what happens in the earthquake. My brother died the next year because he just gave up. He couldn’t cope with how bad it was. My cousin committed suicide because he couldn’t face the financial losses.” There’s a lot more here than just being crushed in a building.

In California, we have hundreds of faults and we’ve put millions of people on top of them. We have regular earthquakes. We’ve actually been in a particularly quiet period in the last 20 years. It will not continue.

We need to be ready for a wide variety of events. To do this, I worked with the Mayor’s Office. We focused on just three areas, not on everything. We picked these areas because they were the ones likely to have the biggest impact.

I think all of you know about the San Andreas earthquake. The ShakeOut scenario helps people understand what a big earthquake would really be like rather than just what we imagine it would be like.

The earthquake lasts for several minutes. That’s why we are promoting earthquake early warning. The city has paid for an extra 150 seismic stations for Southern California. We’re the only region with enough stations to get the early warning to work. We still need to maintain it. We still need to get our software engineers on board. We need to develop all those public interfaces. But because of the city’s investment, we’re ahead of the rest of the country on this.

The ShakeOut gave us a lot of sobering numbers. 300,000 buildings will be damaged badly enough to lose 10 percent of their value. We aren’t going to be using those buildings after the earthquake. We estimate 1,500 collapses, which will involve a pretty large life loss, relatively speaking: 1,800 deaths is way more than we’ve seen in any earthquake after 1906.

In reality, that’s actually a quite small number. You’re far more likely to be murdered in Los Angeles than to die in an earthquake. We have solved many of the issues around life safety. But that’s not enough.

Six months without water means a lot of businesses shutting down. Another person I met in Christchurch, whose house and business were fine, said, “I didn’t know how much water it takes to live. I was spending two hours a day just getting enough water for my family to go on.” Imagine that, across 10-20 million people. When the water gets cut off at the San Andreas, it affects not just the areas shaken in the earthquake. San Diego won’t have water, either. “We’re all in this together” is an understatement.

What’s going to happen to our long-term population? How many of you will stay when you haven’t had a shower in a month? We could see a big out-migration of people. They saw that in Christchurch. With the combination of no water, no utilities, and continuing aftershocks, people gave up and left.

When we looked at how to keep it together, we looked at the city as a system. When you build a city, you first put in a system of pipes. More than 15 percent of the pipes in the city are more than 100 years old. (Dr. Craig Davis leads the Resilience By Design program for the Department of Water and Power, set up by the mayor. If you have water after the earthquake, you’re going to be able to thank Craig!)

On top of those pipes, we put all of our houses and business. We put our power systems, our manufacturing, our communications systems, our transportation systems, and all of us. Those systems allow us to live here.

We analyzed the critical infrastructure necessary to keep the basic functioning going. We identified our basic utilities; because we’re a modern digital era, our telecommunications; and our buildings. From those, we build all of the necessary systems of life: the ability to recover, to have our banks and our schools, and to maintain our emotional wellbeing.

We don’t have to keep every bit of it working perfectly after the earthquake. We can compensate. We’re very resilient people. If we don’t have buildings to go to work, but we do have Internet, a lot of us can telecommute. If we don’t have water, but we do have transportation systems, we can bring in the water that we need, at least for a while. But we have to get it to be good enough. We’re trying to keep the system working.

When we have a big earthquake, our financial activity is going to drop. We are going to lose assets—things will be destroyed—but we also won’t have electricity, water, or open buildings. We need to get everything working quickly enough that we are back to where we could have been before the earthquake within a couple of years. We did that in Northridge, with 40 percent insurance coverage. We have 10 percent now. Christchurch is getting back to work, and they have 95 percent insurance coverage. What are we going to do when 90 percent of people can’t afford to rebuild the houses that they’ve lost?

If we get a delay in recovery—if it takes us a long time to get systems working, if people give up and leave, if we lose their jobs, and if there’s no rental housing so too many of our workers can’t afford to stay here—then it would take a long time to get our economy back. The amount of money lost in that delayed recovery dwarfs what happens in the earthquake. This is what really matters to LA.

To see what happens if our economy stops moving, I have data from Nashville and New Orleans. In the 2005 hurricane, New Orleans saw $80 billion in direct losses. In the next seven years, if you assume New Orleans should have had as much financial activity as Nashville, it saw $105 billion in lost economic activity. It’s continuing to lose that at $15 billion a year.

Now scale this up. New Orleans is a city of half a million people, with a metropolitan area of a little over a million. We have 10 million in LA County. We have 20 million in Southern California.

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Let’s look at the population of Los Angeles and San Francisco through the 1906 earthquake. In 1905, San Francisco was five times larger than Los Angeles. Within a few years, we were bigger than them, and we are now five times larger. You could argue that San Francisco never recovered what it lost in that earthquake, when it was the financial center of the West Coast.

Turning to urban disaster resilience, we have defined it as having an urban system that keeps working well enough that people don’t give up and leave.

We identified several goals to do this. First, we need to not die in the earthquake. Even if I say 1,800 people is not that many, if you know those people who’ve died, it’s really scary to stay through the aftershocks. We can lose a lot of people just because of the fear of death.

We need to protect lives in the earthquake directly and indirectly. We need to be able to respond. We’d better make sure that the Fire Department is actually able to do its job. We’ve seen over and over again that the biggest earthquakes cause so many fires in urban areas that the system loses its ability to cope. We expect the fires will double the losses. That’s assuming that there aren’t Santa Anas when the earthquake hits—which I can make sure of in a scenario but can’t in the real earthquake. If we combine a major earthquake and Santa Anas, it’s going to be very difficult. We have to improve our ability to deliver water to the Fire Department.

We then need to be able to recover. We set a variety of plans in place, focusing on the areas of catastrophic losses. Those include the water system, the fire, the loss of telecommunications, and the loss of housing and commercial spaces.

Looking at water, the plan says several things about improving the pipes that deliver it. A picture of the Los Angeles aqueduct coming out of the mountains as it was being built in 1908 shows a wooden tunnel that crosses the San Andreas fault—9 feet wide, with an expected offset of about 15 feet, maybe up to 30. That’s one risk. Then there are 31 other crossings of other aqueducts. Knowing that we’ve got MWD and DWR coming to the table with Los Angeles and other water districts of Southern California is huge. We can finally move forward on this.

We aren’t going to be able to protect communications at all. Most cell towers have four hours of backup power. Nobody was willing to have us put generators at every cell tower to keep them all working. They have that in Japan, and when the generators ran out of fuel, they still lost their cell phones in 2011 for three weeks. That’s when people really started leaving the area. We need to be able to get cell phone communications back up. Now, like in Japan, our freestanding towers are treated as critical facilities and are going to be built to a stronger standard (though not the ones on buildings).

For the buildings, we’ve instated mandatory retrofits. There are old buildings that we know are going to fall down. It has been challenging over the years to get people to deal with this. I am ecstatic that the city is moving on it. I think we’re going to see it spread out to other areas. We know the buildings that are going to kill you. Don’t you want to know whether you’re working in one of them? You can find that out. The worst of these buildings are being required to undergo a retrofit under the mayor’s plan. Those ordinances have been passing through the system.

But then we have another significant issue. Our life safety code makes sure people can crawl out alive. If you choose to build a weak building that’s a financial loss after the event, that’s your choice to make, but we can’t let you kill people in the process. The problem is that, with that standard, we won’t have buildings we can use after an earthquake. This is probably acceptable when you’re not in a big urban environment.  But we in LA have a significant issue. The life safety standard means that in the worst shaking, there’s no more than a 10-percent chance of falling down. That means accepting that 10 percent of new buildings are falling down. Is that what we want? Looking at other earthquakes, we see that for every collapsed building, many more were impaired.

This 10-percent standard is for the worst possible shaking. An engineer I’m working with, Dr. Porter, has asked how the ShakeOut scenario compares to the maximum credible earthquake in the code, and what the likely the failure rate would be. He gets it down to only 0.8 percent.

But if only 0.8 percent of our buildings don’t work or actually collapse, we will still have 10 percent of our buildings redtagged and another 40 percent yellowtagged. Half of our modern, to-code buildings would be unusable after the earthquake. In addition, we have to worry about the old ones. I really don’t think this is a strong enough standard for us.

It’s a challenge to deal with this because the code issue goes beyond the city. The mayor is promoting a voluntary rating system by the US Resiliency Council. Anyone can pay for a complete review or can look at a chart we put in the mayor’s Resilience By Design program to figure out the rating of their building, just by knowing its age. We need to convince people to figure out whether they’ve got a decent building.

The city is in the process of rating its over-1,000 buildings and will be disclosing the information, providing a description of what it means, and moving to retrofit the bad buildings.

Our mandatory retrofit ordinances address some known problems. There are other problems out there. We all have an obligation as building owners to do better. The mayor has undertaken publicizing this issue, but we also need to move farther.

The City of Christchurch, before the earthquake in 2011, was not nearly as big as us, with only 400,000 people. But it’s still a big city with a modern skyline. They lost their downtown in the earthquake—not because the buildings collapsed and not because they didn’t have a building code. They have the same code that we have and it did its job. People didn’t die. But the buildings are not usable. The end result is a downtown that’s gone. They are rebuilding because they have earthquake insurance.

Let’s now imagine that Los Angeles loses half of its buildings. What are we going to do? We don’t have insurance. How are we going to keep our economy going?

This is why the mayor has taken on this issue. The steps we’re taking are huge. But it’s not enough. Next, we need to get beyond the mentality that this is only about dying. This is about living, and about what life will be like after the earthquake.

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.