The people of California, spurred by disastrous earthquakes in 1933, 1971, 1989, and 1994, have enacted the strongest earthquake laws in the United States, and, indeed, in the world. If a fault is active, you can’t build on it. If an area has a tendency to slide during earthquakes, you’ll have to do a lot of remedial engineering to place a building on it. And if you’re selling a property next to an active fault or within an area with the potential for liquefaction or earthquake-triggered landslides, you’ll have to tell the buyer about the problem. If you don’t and there’s a damaging earthquake, you can expect a lawsuit.
This is revolutionary land-use legislation. It goes against the so-called inalienable right of a person to do whatever he or she can get away with on his or her own land because to do otherwise diminishes the value of the land. It states that the value is based not only on a spectacular view but also on hidden flaws that the nonspecialist might not be able to recognize, but are just as apparent to a geologist as a brain tumor is to a cancer specialist. Californians have accepted this infringement on their property rights—albeit grudgingly. California is a pace-setter. If it’s popular in California today, then it’ll be popular everywhere else tomorrow. Is this true for California’s earthquake laws as well?
Oregon has upgraded its building codes close to California standards, but its land-use laws are essentially unchanged. On paper, the seller is required to tell a buyer about geological flaws on the property, but loopholes in the law make this requirement unenforceable. The state has made maps of Portland, Salem, and Eugene showing areas of potential liquefaction and landslides, but no laws require a developer to abide by these maps. The earthquake problem in Oregon is a federal problem; except for tsunamis, the state has provided no money for earthquake hazard reduction, either from building permit fees or the general fund.
Washington, too, upgraded its building codes, most recently in 2003, and its Growth Management Act provides a way to monitor development on unsafe land. Aside from this act, there is no state regulation of land development, and so this responsibility has been taken up by the cities, most notably Seattle. Its regulation of land development is comparable to that in California, and it has advocated similar controls in other cities, aided by Project Impact funds from FEMA.
Despite these laws, many houses still rest on active faults or are perched atop beach cliffs that someday will slide into the sea, or sit on soft ground that will liquefy during an earthquake. But the life span of many houses is mercifully short, and if we have patience, or luck, these structures will cycle out of the building inventory in a few generations and be replaced by homes that are bolted to their foundations with reinforced cripple walls. If state law is not degraded by future land capitalists, houses built on the Portland Hills Fault won’t be followed by new houses in the same precarious places. So in seventy or eighty years, if present state laws are allowed to remain in place, the old, unsafe buildings will be replaced, which should make for “earthquake-resistant communities,” to borrow a phrase from FEMA’s Project Impact.
The problem is enforcement. The decisions that count are not made at the federal level nor even in state legislatures, which set the standards but do not carry them out. These decisions are made by city councils asked to approve a land development, or planning commissions considering a zoning variance, or building inspectors checking out the welds on steel-frame buildings. Just as the “state of practice” drops precipitously at the California state line, so also does it drop away from the cities around the Bay Area, metropolitan Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland. Geologists from state agencies have fanned out to explain the new land-use laws to local governing bodies, only to find that many of them have never heard of the planning maps or don’t know how to use them. The decisions that count are too often driven by a well-connected land developer rather than advice from a distant state capitol.
Furthermore, the pressure to weaken land-use laws will occur if there is a long period without headline-grabbing earthquakes. The landmark Field Act, upgrading school construction standards after the Long Beach Earthquake of 1933, came under immense pressure after World War II, when the remembrance of collapsed school buildings was overwhelmed by the surging postwar economy. The Seismic Safety Commission and its counterparts in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia are watchdogs for such legislation at the state level, but what about zoning decisions in a faraway county or city that has yet to experience a disastrous earthquake?
My hope as I write this book is that new laws and building codes are becoming so woven into the fabric of West Coast states that attempts by developers to weaken them will be resisted—not only by scientists, engineers, and planners who are earthquake professionals but by informed citizens who have the courage to hold their local elected officials to their responsibilities. Earthquakes are an environmental problem just as surely as logging old-growth forests, heap-leach mining in the backcountry, environmental pollution from nuclear wastes at Hanford, or spoiling a beautiful stretch of coastline or a pristine mountain valley by housing developments. Let’s hope we live up to the challenge.
Suggestions for Further Reading
California Division of Mines and Geology and State Mining and Geology Board. 1997. Guidelines for evaluating and mitigating seismic hazards in California. California Division of Mines and Geology Special Publication 117. 74p.
Cascadia Regional Earthquake Workgroup (CREW). 2003. Business survival kit for earthquakes and other disasters: 27-minute video for small- to medium-size businesses including disaster planning toolkit. Available from Michael Lienau, Global Net Productions, www.globalnetproductions.com or www.crew.org.
Cascadia Regional Earthquake Workgroup, 2013, Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquakes: A magnitude 9 earthquake scenario, 2013, 23p.
Geschwind, C.-H. 2001. California Earthquakes: Science, Risk, and the Politics of Hazard Mitigation, 1906-1977. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. The growth of the California earthquake program since the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.
International Conference of Building Officials, updated every three years. Uniform Building Code in three volumes, available in hard copy or CD-ROM. Whittier, CA: ICBO, Web page www.icbo.org
Mileti, D. S. 1999. Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press. 351p.
Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission (OSSPAC), 2013, The Oregon Resilience Plan: Reducing Risk and Improving Recovery for the Next Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami: http://www.oregon.gov/OMD/ OEM/osspac/docs/Oregon_Resilience_Plan_Final.pdf. summary 8 p.
Scullin, C. M. Excavation and grading code administration, inspection, and enforcement. Available through ICBO, Whittier, CA, Web page www.icbo.org
Smith, T. C., and B. McKamey. 2000. Summary of outreach activities for California’s Seismic Hazards Mapping Program 1996–1998. California Division of Mines and Geology Special Publication 121. 38p. and appendices.
Washington State Seismic Safety Committee, Emergency Management Council, 2012, Resilient Washington State, a framework for minimizing loss and improving statewide recovery after an earthquake: Final report and recommendations: Division of Geology and earth Resources, Information Circular 114, 38 p.