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October 29, 2007

L.A. Earthquake Puts City Disaster Planning to Test

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At 4:31 a.m. on Monday, January 17, Bob Steinbach, Emergency Management Coordinator for the City of Los Angeles Department of Building & Safety, was asleep at his home in the suburban city of Lomita.

At 4:32 a.m. he was on the floor of his bedroom, thrown out of bed by one of the worst earthquakes ever to hit Southern California -- and for the next several weeks his job became one of the most crucial as teams of disaster experts worked to help the shaken city piece itself back together.

“The first thing I did was make sure my family was safe and that there were no gas leaks in the house,” says Steinbach who was one of the more fortunate Southern California homeowners. “We had things spilled out of cupboards but that was about the extent of it.”

However, Steinbach says hardly five minutes went by, after that first tremor, before his telephone started ringing -- the beginning of a 48-hour sleepless stint and two weeks of 18-hour days.

“The city of Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety is charged with making sure every city structure is habitable,” says Steinbach. “When a quake that’s 6.6 on the Richter scale hits a metropolitan area of 12 million, we've got our job cut out for us.”

The first thing Steinbach had to do was to assess the damage, if any, to the city’s “Big Nine” municipal buildings -- including the main City Hall in downtown Los Angeles, City Hall East, City Hall West, Parker Center and Van Nuys City Hall. “In order to keep the city functioning and to prevent a total breakdown of municipal services, strategic city offices and personnel had to be at their desks,” says Steinbach.

Within minutes it was determined that the epicenter of the earthquake was in the San Fernando Valley. “By 9 a.m. that morning we had set up a command post in Van Nuys and had marshalled our first wave of inspectors. They were provided with Polaroid ProCam cameras so they could do on-the-spot documentations of damage. The instant photos were then brought back immediately accompanied by written damage assessments to help us make decisions relative to whether a building could stay open or should be shut down,” says Steinbach.

The Polaroid camera, can be set to record automatically the date and time each picture is taken, an important feature in documenting damage.

“Naturally, legal and insurance considerations weigh heavily on both property owners and insurance companies when an earthquake hits,” says Steinbach. “And the City of Los Angeles is a major owner of property. So having an automatic time and date feature was really important to us. It meant we didn't have to worry about remembering to add the information later when there might have been more time -- or when the photos arrived back after being processed -- only to discover the data had been forgotten.”

“Also, our inspectors could take the photo, see it instantly, then retake it on-the-spot if they decided they wanted an additional perspective or to get another shot from a different angle. That’s a big advantage in doing our kind of work where you have to cover hundreds of miles in a day and take photos of dozens of buildings -- there’s no waiting hours, or even days, for the film to be developed to see if you got the shot you needed.”

Fortunately, while assessments of city buildings revealed some had suffered slight damage, none had to be closed. “We breathed a sigh of relief when we found that out,” says Steinbach. “When we knew city offices could be open and staffed, that meant we were in a position to provide crucial services to businesses and individual homeowners.”

Immediately after it was determined city halls could open, Steinbach and his staff spread out to inspect all of the city’s fire stations. “As you know, we had some pretty bad fires as a result of exploding gas mains, and we had to be able to get those under control. We knew most of our fire stations were older, unreinforced masonary buildings, so we didn’t know what to expect. We were really fortunate that none of them had to be closed.”

At the same time, Steinbach knew telephones had to be working, especially to meet emergency calling demands. “Pacific Bell’s 10-story headquarters building was severely damaged, but working with the company’s emergency maintenance professionals, we were able to get the building habitable so that telephone lines never went down,” says Steinbach. “In fact, we were able to immediately set up a special 24-hour-a-day emergency 800-number line, staffed by 60 operators to handle specific earthquake-related calls.”

At the height of the disaster emergency, Steinbach’s office had 1,000 inspectors on the streets of Los Angeles, many of them sent from other parts of the country. “We had tremendous cooperation from safety inspection offices everywhere,” says Steinbach. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers helped as did municipalities including Seattle, San Francisco, Oregon, Arizona and Florida.”

There are 1.3 million buildings in Los Angeles and, six weeks after the earthquake, Steinbach and his teams of inspectors have looked at nearly 100,000 of them. “The only way to handle such a massive undertaking was for us to first inspect the most obviously damaged buildings. Our teams would be assigned to specific areas where they would first drive up and down streets doing visual assessments, stopping and entering buildings where you could see damage.”

Steinbach says assessments are being conducted on 6,000 buildings a day. “And we will be continuing assessments for several months until we are satisfied every building is safe and habitable. Each assessment consists of a formal write-up and as many instant photos as it takes to document a building’s condition. Some forms have as many as 10 instant photos stapled to them supporting the written information.”

The instant photos also help Steinbach’s office provide information to property owners. “For example, an owner of an apartment complex might come to us and want to know why no one can reenter units 4, 5, 22 and 28 and why he and his tenants have to stay off the stairway. We simply show the owner the instant photos we have taken to support our decision -- and to emphasize the personal safety considerations at stake.”

Even though several weeks have gone by since the ground under the feet of Angelenos first shook, many of its residents are still afraid to return to their damaged homes. “We continue to have many people who are just too terrified to go back inside their houses due, in part, to the aftershocks we have experienced,” says Steinbach. “So we have ‘park patrols,’ teams of inspectors who go to the parks, find out where the people camping there live, go to their homes or apartment buildings, do an inspection, then return to the park the next day to let them know whether, indeed, it is safe for them to go home or not.”

In one way, the earthquake’s timing was appropriate. “Just a month earlier we had completed a new disaster plan for the city,” says Steinbach. “The South Central riots and the wild brush fires, both disasters which strained our resources, dictated a review and updating of our emergency plans, which were to be voted on by our management board on January 20 -- three days after the earthquake struck. Needless to say, the new plan was put to the test a bit earlier than we had anticipated.”

While the earthquake’s aftermath is still consuming a major portion of Steinbach’s time, has he had opportunity to think about leaving Los Angeles as others have? “I was born and raised in Southern California,” answers Steinbach. “Native Californians don’t leave.”

Steinbach's position reflects that of the Central City Association of Los Angeles, an organization which represents the downtown business community. A headline on a recent new release distributed by the organization reads, “Neither rain nor Medflys nor 6.6 earthquakes can extinguish L.A.’s spirit.”


Dick Cooke is President of Cooke Co., in New York, NY.

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