Shutdown breeds fear of earthquake unpreparedness in California

The U.S. Geological Survey has suspended most of its earthquake hazards operations

Third grade students at William L. Cobb Elementary School take cover under desks as they participate in the Great California ShakeOut earthquake drill on Oct. 20, 2011.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Just ahead of the national Great ShakeOut earthquake preparedness day on Oct. 17, the U.S. Geological Survey Earthquake Hazards Program has suspended most of its operations because of the federal government shutdown.

That's disturbing news here in earthquake country, where monitoring seismic activity around the clock is a matter of survival.

While the USGS continues to monitor and report on earthquakes, the accuracy or timeliness of some information and access to online data has been affected.

"A minimal number of employees needed for the protection of life and property has been excepted from furlough," Dave Applegate, associate director for natural hazards at USGS, wrote in an e-mail to Al Jazeera.

"This number includes less than half the staff at the National Earthquake Information Center in order to maintain 24/7 monitoring and reporting on earthquake activity."

In the event of a natural disaster, additional employees are on call.

In California, the USGS is relying on partners Caltech and UC Berkeley to maintain regional network operations.

"Our earthquake research and hazard assessment work has been suspended as have our outreach efforts," Applegate wrote. "The timing of the (federal funding) lapse is particularly challenging because Oct. 17 is the Great ShakeOut earthquake preparedness exercise taking place across the country."

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The USGS would normally play a key role but "USGS staff have already had to pull out of quite a few events that were scheduled for the lead-up to the ShakeOut, and many more cancellations will take place if the shutdown continues through the 17th," Applegate wrote.

On top of not having the resources to properly show Angelenos and other Californians how to respond in the event of an earthquake, the city of Los Angeles is already at a disadvantage, structurally speaking. The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that more than 1,000 old concrete buildings in Los Angeles and hundreds more throughout the county may be at risk of collapsing in a major earthquake.

The Times analysis found that "50 of these buildings in the city alone would be destroyed, exposing thousands to injury or death." The at-risk buildings include everything from downtown garment factories to office buildings in the upscale Westwood area of Los Angeles.

"It's not hugely surprising," said Gary Black, associate professor of architecture at Berkeley's College of Environmental Design and a member of Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center. "Even if laws are passed, the thing is it takes money to retrofit buildings. If you can't justify the expenditure with some kind of payback, it's very difficult."

And tearing down unsafe buildings isn't always an option. Many of the buildings most prone to collapse in an earthquake were erected more than a century ago and are considered historic.

"They can't be demolished," Black said. "People are preventing you from doing it. It's a really difficult situation."

Development of older buildings and complexes with new businesses could change the equation, though. In Santa Barbara County, bars, restaurants and a distillery settled in an old industrial complex. The success of these ventures led to earthquake retrofitting of the building.

Without such financial impetus, older buildings will remain unsafe and standing until a natural disaster takes them down. 

Recent earthquakes, such as the 1994 Northridge Earthquake in Southern California, led to changes in engineering standards but the new laws affect only new construction.

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