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How is Santa Monica addressing earthquake retrofitting issues?

A bulldozer begins to tear down a section of the Santa Monica Freeway Jan. 19, 1994 that collapsed during the Northridge earthquake. Commuters were urged to leave for work two hours earlier due to the 300-foot section of the road that is closed.
A bulldozer begins to tear down a section of the Santa Monica Freeway Jan. 19, 1994 that collapsed during the Northridge earthquake. Commuters were urged to leave for work two hours earlier due to the 300-foot section of the road that is closed.
Tim Clary/AFP/Getty Images

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It's no secret that California is an earthquake hot zone, but it seems lately that fact is getting a lot more attention.

You've got Mayor Garcetti appointing seismologist Lucy Jones to be the city's first earthquake czar.  Then, Caltech and USGS have been ramping up efforts to build a quake early warning system.

Earlier this year, the City of Santa Monica announced plans to create a list of seismically vulnerable buildings and mandate they get retrofitted.

RELATED: Santa Monica to vote on next step of earthquake retrofitting plan 

There is an important vote for that effort Tuesday night, and KPCC's Science Reporter Sanden Totten is here to fill us in about it.

Tell us about Santa Monica's plan to improve the safety of its buildings:

"Santa Monica is the first city in the state with such an ambitious plan, it'll cover hundreds of buildings of different types. Ironically, the city passed laws 20 years ago requiring retrofitting of concrete, steel and wood apartment buildings that are vulnerable to collapse during shaking, but for some reason stopped implementing it some years later. Now they are tying again.

The first step: identify the buildings at risk. That means searching the city for all the kinds of structures that have been shown to be vulnerable to heavy shaking. Once the city has a list of these vulnerable buildings, it'll create standards for how to fix or retrofit them.

Owners will be given these standards and a certain amount of time to complete the work in or tear down their property and build something new."

So where are they at in this process? What happens tonight?

"Tonight, the Santa Monica City Council will vote on whether or not to hire a private engineering firm to help identify buildings.

The City's Building Officer told me they got proposals from a number of firms and one stood out. A California based company called Degenkolb Engineers.

I spoke with the city's building officer and he said he really liked the company's on the ground approach to identifying buildings, meaning they plan to, literally, walk up and down the streets looking at each building to determine what kind they are and whether or not they should be considered a potential quake risk.

If the city council approves the contract — and they likely will — Degenkolb will get up to about $90,000 and two months to compile a list of the seismically risky buildings in Santa Monica."

Say the city finds all the buildings it thinks could be seismically unsafe, then what?

"By the late summer preliminary list should be ready. Then they'll contact the owners on there and let them explain if they've done any retrofitting work since construction. If they have and it meets certain levels of safety, those owners will get off the list.

The city is also working with the Structural Engineers Association of California to create standards for retrofitting buildings. After this list is finalized, owners on the list will be given those guidelines that will explain in detail how they should fix their structure up. The owners will be given a window of time to make those changes."

It seems like it could be a challenge for building owners who might have to make serious changes, right?

"Right. The city hasn't said if there will be any assistance for owners having trouble paying for the upgrades. Some have expressed concern. Also, there a real issues around liability that arises in a case like this.

Right now, state standards are pretty vague about when a building owner is responsible if a structure fails during a big quake. The question that comes up is did the owner what the risk was and did they do something about it?

Once there is a list like the one Santa Monica is creating, it will be hard for owners on there to argue they didn't know the risk their building faced if it collapses or otherwise injures someone. There is recent precedent suggesting courts will side with the victims even if owners were planning on retrofitting.

There was a case in Paso Robles dating back to a 2003 quake where a building killed two people. Paso Robles also had a mandatory retrofitting program in place and the building in question was in need of updating, but the owners still had several years legally in which to make those changes. Still, the jury awarded the family of the victims nearly $2 million.

So even if they have time, many building owners in Santa Monica might want to make changes to their structure as soon as possible."

As we mentioned, Los Angeles is also working on improving the seismic safety of its buildings. How far along are those efforts?

"I was told L.A. is considering a similar retrofitting program and that the city is in talks with Santa Monica to see what it can learn from its neighbor. Of course L.A. is much, much bigger. Not every approach Santa Monica uses will scale up to work for L.A.

Also, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has talked about wanting a building rating system. Basically, buildings will get a grade for their ability to withstand a major quake. It could be an A,B,C kind of thing or maybe a 5-star system. The details of that plan are still in the works, but it would be the first in the nation if it gets implemented."