Earthquakes: LA developing nation's first building safety rating system (Update)

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Los Angeles is planning a first of its kind system for rating the seismic safety of buildings.

Mayor Eric Garcetti made the announcement Thursday during his State of the City address, calling the plan a "game changer."

Garcetti also said he wants to "create plans to mandate that our older buildings are retrofitted."

The city has taken steps to retrofit unreinforced brick building but not certain types of concrete and wood-frame buildings . The city council has been reluctant to order those retrofits, largely out of concerns the costs would be prohibitive for building owners. 

In his speech, Garcetti appeared to acknowledge those concerns.

"Some critics say the cost of those upgrades may be high," he said. "But as we saw with Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, the cost of being unprepared is much higher."

Related: 4 tips for talking to children about earthquakes

Garcetti said Los Angeles can't afford to wait to take steps to increase earthquake safety. 

"This past month, we've had two earthquakes, literal wake up calls to remind us that the big one is indeed coming," he said. 

The mayor's announcement comes nearly three months after he partnered with U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Lucy Jones to come up with ways to improve the city's ability to rebound after a major earthquake.

"What it will be like will depend a lot on what we do in the next year," Jones said at the time.

Advocates for seismic safety have long called for a rating system to evaluate the safety of buildings during a major quake.

The non-profit group US Resiliency Council has been working on developing a similar rating system.

Michael Cochran, president of the Structural Engineers Association of California, says it's a daunting task, in part because there are so many variables when it comes to seismic safety.

He says one of the first challenges facing Garcetti and Jones is estabilishing what criteria to use to rate the buildings.

"Is it purely life safety? Is it repair cost? Is it the functionality, how long it’s going to take to get the building back up? " Cochran said.

He added that the rating system would have to be complex enough to take many variables into account yet presented in a way that ordinary people can understand.

He points out that the U.S. Green Building Council managed to over come some similar challenges when creating the LEED certification program for eco-friendly structures.

It's still unclear how the Los Angeles program would work. KPCC reached out to both Mayor Garcetti's office and Dr Jones, but neither responded to requests for interview.


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