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California taking a closer look at its quake preparedness

Lessons sought from hurricane

LOS ANGELES -- US Geological Survey seismologist Lucy Jones remembers attending an emergency training session in August 2001 with the Federal Emergency Management Agency that discussed the three most likely catastrophes to strike the United States.

First on the list was a terrorist attack in New York. Second was a super-strength hurricane hitting New Orleans. Third was a major earthquake on the San Andreas Fault.

Now that the first two have come to pass, she and other earthquake specialists are using the Hurricane Katrina devastation as an opportunity to reassess how California would handle a major temblor.

Jones, scientist-in-charge for the geological survey's Southern California Earthquake Hazards Team, and other scientists generally agree that California has come a long way in the past two decades in seismic safety.

In Los Angeles, all but one of 8,700 unreinforced masonry buildings -- considered the most likely to collapse in a major quake -- have been retrofitted or demolished. The state spent billions after the 1994 Northridge quake to retrofit some 2,100 freeway overpasses, reporting last week that only a handful remain unreinforced.

Despite these improvements, however, officials contend that a major temblor could cause the level of destruction and disruption seen in the past weeks on the Gulf Coast.

About 900 hospital buildings that state officials have identified as needing either retrofitting or replacement have yet to receive them, and the state recently agreed to five-year extensions for hospitals that can't meet the 2008 deadline to make the fixes. Some 7,000 school buildings across the state would also be vulnerable during a huge temblor, a state study found, though there is no firm timetable for upgrading the structures.

And four Los Angeles Police Department facilities -- including the Parker Center headquarters downtown -- worry officials, because they were built under less stringent earthquake standards and might not survive a major temblor. Only two of the LAPD's 19 stations meet the most rigorous quake-safe rules.

''We could be dealing with infrastructure issues a lot like New Orleans," Jones said. ''Our natural gas passes through the Cajon Pass. . . . Water -- three pipelines cross the San Andreas Fault in an area that is expected to go in an earthquake." Railway lines are also vulnerable, she said.

A catastrophic temblor at the right spot along the San Andreas could significantly reduce energy and water supplies at least temporarily, she and others said. Researchers at the Southern California Earthquake Center said there is an 80 percent to 90 percent chance that a temblor of 7.0 or greater magnitude will strike Southern California before 2024.

''We aren't anywhere close to where I wish we were" in terms of seismic safety, Jones said.

Seismologists are particularly concerned about a type of building that has gained far less attention than unreinforced masonry.

There are about 40,000 structures in California made from ''nonductile reinforced concrete," a rigid substance susceptible to cracking. This was a common construction ingredient for office buildings in the 1950s and '60s, before the state instituted stricter standards. Few such structures have been seismically retrofitted, officials said.

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