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The Nation

March 22, 2011

Japan quake serves as reminder for Californians

OAKLAND, Calif. — The devastating earthquake in Japan has served as a painful reminder of the fact that California has struggled on a number of fronts to protect the state from the next big one, namely when it comes to bolstering at-risk buildings.

California's five-year-old program for helping cash-strapped public schools seismically retrofit their most vulnerable buildings has so far disbursed only a tiny portion of the $200 million set aside under the effort. The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, damaged in the 1989 earthquake, still hasn't been replaced. Thousands of old hospitals and apartment buildings remain despite being at serious risk in a quake.

"Everybody owns risk if you live in earthquake country," said David Bonowitz, a structural engineer. "And individuals have to be responsible for their own risks just like public policymakers and city officials have their own responsibilities."

Since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco Bay area and the 1994 Northridge temblor near Los Angeles, billions of dollars have been spent on retrofitting thousands of unreinforced brick buildings, roads, bridges and university buildings.

Still, experts say thousands of potentially dangerous concrete school buildings, high-rise apartments and hospitals that were built before California changed its building code in 1976 have not even been identified. The especially vulnerable buildings were made with "non-ductile" concrete, which was used in older structures and did not hold up well after the recent quake in New Zealand.

Craig Comartin, a former president of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, said the state has 25,000 to 30,000 non-ductile concrete buildings.

Bonowitz said the main mistake planners have made in the state's approach to preparedness is thinking everything can be addressed before the next disaster. Earthquake safety experts now realize the focus should be on shoring up structures that will help a community rebound quickly — hospitals, large apartment buildings and schools.

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