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Mistreatment of Seismology Issues

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On October 13, 1998 I sent the following question addressed to California
Department of Conservation, Seismology Division:

How do you define "acceptable level of seismic hazard" in terms of Richter
scale magnitude?  Thank you ...

The following response was received:

> From:	Reichle, Michael 
> Sent:	Monday, October 19, 1998 10:01 AM
> To:	'Yank2002(--nospam--at)aol.com'
> Cc:	Beeby, Dave
> Subject:	RE: Acceptable levels of seismic hazard
> 
> There is no "acceptable level of seismic hazard,"  because we have no
> control over the shaking.  We generally use the term "acceptable level of
> risk,"  which refers to how buildings and other structures respond to the
> shaking.  What the "acceptable level" actually is depends on your
> structure.  For example, buildings built according to the Uniform Building
> Code are built to life safety standards.  They should not collapse, but
> could be severely damaged.  Schools and hospitals in California are built
> to remain operational following an earthquake.  
> 
> Future building codes will incorporate "performance-based design" that
> will permit the owner to determine the performance level (or risk level)
> above the life safety standard that he may wish for his building.  The
> Federal Emergency Management Agency has some publications on
> performance-based design, if you wish to pursue that subject further.
> 
> I hope this information is helpful.  Feel free to let me know if you have
> any further questions.
> 
> Michael Reichle
> Supervising Geologist

On October 20, 1998 I sent the following E-Mail message to Michael Reichle:

Subj:	Re: Acceptable levels of seismic hazard
Date:	98-10-20 16:00:20 EDT
From:	Yank2002
To:	mreichle(--nospam--at)consrv.ca.gov

Thank you for your response.  I am / was a practicing structural engineer in
the State of California for the past 30 years. I think I know that due to a
variety of reasons structures designed "to code" do not always behave as they
are "officially" expected to behave. (1971 Sylmar/San Fernando hospital
collapse; 1994 California State University Northridge structures collapses;
1994 near collapse of MAJOR highrise structures in downtown Los Angeles -
about which, not surprisingly, mostly California structural engineers are
aware of; the public was and still is kept in the dark about this super-major
seismic disaster that almost materialized and almost destroyed a good part of
downtown Los Angeles).

The so-called "life safety standards" you mentioned in your E-Mail, defined by
the state (and federal) people are misleading as they inform the public that
certain special structures (hospitals and schools) are life-safe. In case of
school structures the "life safety standards" statement misinforms the parents
by suggesting that they should not worry about their children's safety while
they are in school. The reality, however, was and is different. 

It is easy to mathematically translate Zone 4 seismic code requirements into
the equivalent of Richter scale magnitude. From what I have discovered, this
unofficial but reasonable (I think) translation indicates that Seismic Zone 4
design requirements equal about 6.5 magnitude on the Richter scale under
"average" geological soil conditions. 

The magnitude of both earthquakes, Sylmar and Northridge, exceeded 6.5 and
only due to the timing of both quakes (early morning hours) the damage to
affected communities was 50+ deaths for each event in addition to physical
damage to many structures ($20 billion+ for the 1994 event). An earthquake of
6.5 magnitude taking place during "business hours" would increase death toll
by the factor of at least 10. 

Both earthquakes (Sylmar and Northridge) were seismic energy releases of minor
faults. The release of seismic energy by a major fault, the San Andreas, in a
close vicinity of Los Angeles (Pasadena, Glendale, etc.) or San Francisco,
would cause much more physical damage to structures and the death toll would
probably run into thousands. Since Los Angeles and San Francisco are the two
major targets of San Andreas seismic energy release of more than 7.3 magnitude
as projected by Caltech, U of California at Berkeley and Stanford U theories
(which can be proven by mathematically based translation), the "acceptable
level of risk" has no practical meaning to anyone other than to the self-
serving state officials formulating such incomprehensible definitions. 

If the owner of a property (residential, commercial, or whatever) approaches
the structural engineer and asks him a question: Will my structure be able to
withstand the earthquake of magnitude of (say) 6.8?  The structural engineer
is not able to answer the question because he was not given the tools to
translate the 6.8 Richter scale magnitude earthquake into "how the structure
should be built and how the connection details must be developed to withstand
such an earthquake". The only statement he can make is that the structure
seismically conforms (or does not conform) to the latest building code. Since
the "acceptable level of risk" statement does not mean anything in terms of
Richter magnitude numbers, the owner of the structure is at a loss what to do
next if he wants the structure to withstand a 6.8 (or any other ) magnitude
earthquake. The structural engineer wouldn't be of any help as he also doesn't
know what has to be done to the structure (existing or new) so it withstands
the earthquake of this particular (or any other) magnitude. 

Since general public knows very well what kind of damage can be expected when
(say) 6.4 earthquake strikes but has absolutely no idea as to what kind of
damage can result when "life-safety standard"-compliant structure is hit by
the same magnitude earthquake, I think the process of identifying seismic
forces acting in seismic regions of California should be convertible to
Richter scale magnitude (or any other meaningful scale system). The number
designated earthquake is understood by most humans living on this planet; "the
life-safety standard"-compliant structure designation is good only for the
technically-inclined poets. As it turns out the-so-called "life-safety
standards" did not work very well for school structures in Northridge nor for
hospital facilities in Sylmar. 

As a result of all of it: If an individual officially or unofficially inquires
geologists or structural engineers about the state of seismic affairs in
California, he will be not necessarily deliberately but certainly knowingly
misinformed and his question will never be truthfully answered only because
the "acceptable level of risk" is a meaningless concept. Your comments would
be appreciated.

(*) Pasadena is only 33 miles away perpendicularly from the point on the San
Andreas fault (the shortest distance) where seismologists expect the major
(7.0+) seismic release of energy to happen. The latest changes of the seismic
code requirements DO NOT consider special "short distance" effects of a major
earthquake event generated by the San Andreas.

The end of my message.

Before I receive the response from the Conservation people, I would like to
put the issue on the conference table of structural engineers for possible
discussion. I realize that "structural engineering officialdom" would want to
shoot me in the back ... but they don't know where I live. So, for the time
being I am safe.

By the way ... I don't smoke pot, don't use hallucinatory drugs nor drink
alcohol. 

Thank you for your time.