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California Earthquake Problems

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For those who are interested in the subject matter it is suggested that this
five-page (plus) long document be printed out for easier reading. 

January 1999

California Earthquake Problems  

All structures built in California since 1933, including residential houses,
are built (or are supposed to be built) to comply with seismic code
requirements so they do not collapse, or partially collapse, under seismic
forces generated by an earthquake. However, since seismic code requirements
are not, in any way, connected or linked to the Richter-magnitude-scale, it is
often problematic (if not impossible) to determine the equivalent of Richter
magnitude that a structure built according to the code can successfully

Before we come to the central objective of this disclosure, we have to point
to certain historical events of the past 60 years which have led to
distortions and misrepresentations made by the State of California officials.
These distortions continue to be duly disseminated and enforced; still today,
they are coerced on structural engineers to be administered and executed.

The seismic code for the State of California was an administrative response of
the state officials to the Long Beach earthquake of 1933 to prevent a future
possibility of children being crushed to death by collapsing school structures
while attending classes. Since, at that time, "Richter magnitude scale" was
just introduced into the world of academia, the seismic code was developed on
some empirical data which, for obvious reasons, had nothing to do with the
"magnitude of an earthquake" as we know it today. 

The seismic code of 1933 was "refined" every so often to stay "in touch" with
changes of the modern world. These changes, additions, or adjustments,
however, had no connection whatsoever with the "magnitude of an earthquake"
subject matter. They were, at best, hypothetical attempts to fix or to
"advance" code contingencies that were established initially on unwarranted
and untested assumptions. Moreover, the "refinements" of the most current and
any previous seismic code edition do not use, contain nor mention the
generally accepted and recognized phrase "magnitude of an earthquake", even
for comparison purposes. "The earthquake magnitude" as a term does not exist
for structural engineers. The continued patch-up work on the original seismic
code and its empirical adjustments is the game the California state officials,
headed by the California Seismic Safety Commission and change-resisting group
of influential structural engineers, are still playing today without a regard
to what seismologists in the U.S. and all around the world are saying. 

When asked by the property owner "what Richter scale magnitude my structure
can withstand", most structural engineers are reluctant to respond because
this question, in fact, cannot be answered. As one of the prominent engineers
debating potential changes in seismic code requirements said on the Internet
engineering discussion group, "This issue should be important to structural
engineers. If we just design per code as if it was a cook book, we are going
to make mistakes. We should at least try to understand the intent of the
code".  Another statement by a structural engineer was: "From my standpoint, I
would like to hear now how this information is given to the general public so
they better understand what it means when they are told their building *is in
conformance with the code*. Many of my projects relate directly to this
concept. When the firm evaluates a building and tells the owner they can
expect a 25% to 30% loss from a design based earthquake, they obviously get
concerned.  Many will say, "but the building was built to code!". 

Still another comment was: .. In my opinion, far too many rash and
overreactive code detail remedies have been promulgated, almost at knee-jerk
fashion ...... But is it hardly unprecedented.  .. Unlike in the military,
where defeated commanders are replaced with unimpaired once, after Northridge
the same officials who allowed the failed buildings to be built oversaw a
great patchwork of remedial code changes. No reflection on the integrity of
those officials, but I think all those code changes should be regarded as
temporary, and replaced by simpler and more coherent once formulated from a
distance and free from control by those having personal responsibility at the
time of disaster. Code needs a fresh, dispassionate remake, hopefully not (as
before) understating the earthquake shaking or overstating material
performance in the as-built realities. And it needs to be brought back within
an ordinary engineer's ability to grasp and correctly follow". (Also see Note

The conclusion that can be drawn from these three comments is that it is
astonishing that engineers licensed by the state of California, whose job is
to design safe structures to protect the public from natural disasters, do not
understand what they are doing. 

Some structural engineers want to believe that if the structure is built "as-
per-code", it should survive the earthquake without considerable damage as
long as its "magnitude" does not exceed the "acceptable level of risk" - an
official designation by the California Department of Conservation (also see
Note 1). The problem is that the "acceptable level of risk" is a quantity that
cannot be measured. In order to respond to the inquiring client in such a way
that he understands what to expect when an earthquake occurs, the "acceptable
level of risk" phrase is often translated (in an unofficial form, i.e., behind
the closed doors) to Richter scale magnitude of 6.6 or thereabouts. Such a
translation, however, is nothing more than an estimated guess without a
scientific, mathematical or logical basis. 

The definition of the phrase has been questioned by seismologists and many
open-minded structural engineers when the analysis of earthquakes'
aftereffects has shown that the term, "acceptable level of risk", as applied
by the code, is a meaningless concept. The sad part of the story is that, by
law, engineers designing structures must comply with construction related
provisions of the seismic code which, theoretically and practically, has
nothing to do with seismology based reality. The loss of human lives and
enormous damage to properties caused by recent minor-fault-earthquakes are
indisputable testimonials to the erroneous and reckless way the California
seismic "safety" code is written and enforced. 

Furthermore, since the general public, by reading newspapers and watching
television, knows very well what kind of damage can be expected when (say) a
5.3 or 6.6 Richter-scale-magnitude earthquake occurs but has absolutely no
idea what kind of damage can result when "an acceptable level of risk"
criteria, as required by the code, was used to design the structure, it is
reasonable to expect that the process of identifying seismic resistance of
structures should be convertible to Richter scale magnitude (or any other
generally recognized meaningful scale system). The Richter-scale-magnitude-
number-designated earthquake is understood by most humans living on this
planet; "an acceptable level of risk"-compliant-structure-designation is not
understood even by structural engineers. 

You might want to say here that all this could be true, but you are not
concerned about what the State or the Universities are saying or doing because
any damage to your property is covered by an earthquake insurance policy.
Unfortunately this presumption is no longer valid today because of the way the
earthquake insurance policies are now written. After the Northridge
earthquake, most insurance companies stopped selling new homeowners' policies
which would have to include seismic coverage. Some insurers considered
dropping their existing customers to reduce their exposure to earthquake
losses. The state of California got into the picture and twisted an arm here
and pulled a leg there and as a result most insurance companies are now
required to offer earthquake insurance, but not on terms and conditions
resembling the pre-Northridge situation. Since the subject matter became
rather complicated requiring producing a lengthy report to be able to see the
true and untainted picture of the insurance aftereffects of the Northridge
earthquake, we have to shorten it by making the following comparison:

1. The 1994 Northridge earthquake. Richter magnitude 6.7. Total damage: $32
billion. The amounts paid out by the insurance companies was a record of $12.5
billion. Several insurance companies became insolvent but were rescued by
state and federal governments so they wouldn't go bankrupt if all insurance
claims were to be paid. Hundreds of property owners with small or no
earthquake insurance policies walked away from their homes, unable to pay for
the repairs..   

2. The Next San Andreas Fault Earthquake. Richter magnitude 7.3 - 8.0. The
seismic energy release is anticipated to be 20-50 times more powerful than the
Northridge earthquake. According to seismologists, the most probable location
of the earthquake is expected to be one of the two high density population
areas along the fault. Total damage is estimated to be in the vicinity of $170
to $225 billion. The insurance companies say that if such damage enormity
occurs, they are incapable of paying out most of the earthquake claims. Since
state and federal governments are unable to rescue insurance companies at this
financial immensity level, thousands of property owners will have to walk away
from their properties as, by law, they cannot occupy red-tagged structures.  

In view of the huge Northridge disaster and its affects on the insurance
companies, the state of California recently created California Earthquake
Authority (CEA), a system which, they say, will work for anticipated
earthquakes. CEA is setting new rates and coverage limits for earthquake-prone
areas which, according to experts, translate into lesser coverage and higher
deductibles (L.A.Times, Dec 31, 1998). It would mean that, even for a
"reasonable magnitude earthquake", only certain percentage of damage is
covered by the insurance policy. The rest has to come from the property
owner's pocket. In addition, the insurance policy will pay only for structural
damages up to a certain maximum amount after deductibles are subtracted.
Damages to the interior, exterior, and other non-structural components of the
property including pools, patios, fences, driveways and detached garages are
not covered. An "extra-insurance" above the state established insurance limit
can be obtained from insurance companies which do not participate in the CEA
program --- at a prohibitive cost. In effect, a great majority of property
owners will be financially unable to repair structures that are not engineered
to withstand the maximum (M6.8 - M7.0) "non-San-Andreas-fault- earthquake" or
a medium (M7.2 - M7.6) "San Andreas fault earthquake" (see page 4 for

A "Residential Earthquake Recovery" study conducted in 1996 by the University
of California at Berkeley points out that "even though scientists are
confident that another disaster of the same (or similar) magnitude as the
Northridge earthquake will occur in a reasonable future, we cannot expect that
private insurers or federal agencies will be willing or able to compensate
victims with a comparable level of rebuilding assistance". The study also
points out that "a major seismic event is expected to take place during the
lifetimes of many of the current residents of California ... as the last event
took place in 1857 for Southern California and in 1906 for Northern

Below is an abbreviated information about earthquakes that, in the past 25
years, have affected the lives of people and also affected physical conditions
of properties in locations between the town of Mendocino (Northern California)
and the Mexican border.

The 1971 San Fernando (near Los Angeles) earthquake. A non-San Andreas fault
quake. Magnitude 6.5. Epicenter located in a medium density population area.
Death toll 65. Several major Interstate Highway bridges collapsed. A large
modern hospital destroyed requiring the rebuilding of the facility anew.
Hundreds of residential and commercial structures totally or partially

The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Magnitude 7.1. A San Andreas fault quake.
Epicenter located 35-45 miles away from high density population areas. Death
toll 62. Major highway bridges and overpasses 43 miles away from the epicenter
(San Francisco Bay area) totally and partially collapsed. Hundreds of
important commercial and residential structures totally or partially
destroyed. Physical damage about $15 billion. 

The 1992 Landers (south from Palm Springs) earthquake. Magnitude 7.3. A San
Andreas fault quake. Epicenter located in an unpopulated area. Physical damage
to the existing structures was limited to unoccupied buildings of doubtful
quality - for all practical purposes, there was nothing there to begin with
(the land where only jackals live). 

The 1994 Northridge earthquake. Magnitude 6.7. A non-San Andreas fault quake.
Epicenter located in a high density population area. Death toll 61. Major
bridges, overpasses, and large number of essential facilities destroyed. About
55% of the 680 public school buildings damaged. About six thousand commercial
and residential structures totally collapsed and thousands more partially
destroyed. The earthquake caused substantial damage to many wood frame
structures that were thought to be earthquake resistant, while sparing many
older homes thought to be more damage-prone. Physical damage $25 billion plus.
(The private-sector rebuilding, not the repair of public infrastructure, was
by far the costliest aspect of the disaster recovery process).

Other seismic faults capable to inflict a major damage to California
properties: (1) For Northern California, the Hayward and Rogers Creek faults
have a potential to produce magnitude 7 earthquakes. The Hayward fault was
responsible for two approximate magnitude 7 events in the mid-19th century,
and its a 28% probability of a 7 or greater earthquake in the next 30 years is
the greatest in any Bay Area fault, in addition to anticipated San Andreas
fault earthquake. (2) According to the Working Group on California Earthquake
Probabilities (WGCEP, 1995) Southern California has "a deficiency of about 12
Northridge-sized earthquakes" - in addition to anticipated San Andreas fault

Question: What is the difference between the "San Andreas fault" and "non-San
Andreas fault" earthquake? 

The "non-San Andreas fault" earthquake is a quake that occurs further than ca.
5 miles away from the San Andreas fault. Historically, these type of faults
can usually generate earthquake magnitudes of not more than 6.8 - 7.0 on the
Richter scale. The Northridge and San Fernando earthquakes are good examples
of such faults. The "non-San Andreas faults" are often called the "minor

The "San Andreas fault" earthquakes occur right on the San Andreas fault or
within a distance of not more than 4-5 miles away from it, on either side of
the fault. Historically, the magnitude of earthquakes occurring within these
distance parameters is usually more than 7.0 and it can be as large as 8.5 or
more on the Richter scale. The "San Andreas fault" is often called the "major
fault". (The damage to certain types of properties located within a distance
of ca. 40-50 miles from the San Andreas fault earthquake epicenter can be
greater than the damage from "local" minor fault earthquakes such as the
Northridge earthquake. Example: the Loma Prieta earthquake).  

Why are we telling you all these well known gloomy stories?  Because as we all
know, sooner or later, a major earthquake - the San Andreas fault earthquake -
will strike somewhere along the fault. According to seismologists, its
magnitude is expected to be between 7.3 and 8.0 on the Richter scale. Nobody
knows when it is going to happen, but geology researchers and scientists have
a pretty good idea WHERE it is expected to happen. 

The next question you might want to ask is this: If the scientists know where
the earthquake might strike, why don't they point the finger on the map of
California and inform the public as to its probable locations so that some
prudent preparations are made to reasonably safely survive the earthquake and
to avoid a disaster much bigger than the Northridge calamity? Or, to put it in
another way: Why the Office of California Emergency Services, FEMA and the
Universities, do not want you to know where the next big earthquake will

The answer is as follows: Let us assume that Caltech, Stanford and Berkeley
Universities' geology departments make a public announcement that according to
their research an earthquake on the San Andreas fault, magnitude 7.4 - 7.6 on
a Richter scale, can be expected in the close vicinity of (say) San Jose. The
announcement is made jointly with the Office of California Emergency Services.
The question is, what kind of reaction on the part of the public can be
expected after such an announcement is made? 

Since there is a possibility of loss of lives in the hundreds (if not in the
thousands) and of a multi-hundred-billion-dollar property damage pinpointed to
a specific location such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, and other
cities adjacent to the San Andreas fault, several governmental and private
research institutes were commissioned to make a study of the aftereffects of
such a hypothetical announcement. The conclusion of the studies was that there
is a strong potential - once the information is released to the public - of
uncontrollable collective panic and economic hysteria at the target location. 

One of the main elements of the conclusion was: since thousands of affected
people will move out to non-quake regions of the county or, if they stay, many
of them will lose their jobs as a result of many employers moving out of the
area; also, since thousands of real estate properties will lose most of their
market value instantly (right after the announcement of the forthcoming
earthquake is made), something has to be done to control this unavoidable
economic and psychological devastation the announcement might create. 

The studies' final conclusion was that there is not very much the state of
California, FEMA, the Universities or anyone else can do to prevent such a
pre-earthquake economic and psychological devastation. It was decided,
therefore, that the only solution to eliminate this kind of a reaction is not
to disclose to the public where the major earthquake is expected to occur.
This is exactly what the state of California, the Universities, and FEMA are

Is keeping quiet (withdrawing the information from the public) about the
possibility of destruction of a major proportion the best solution to the
problem? In our opinion, it would be very unwise not to disclose to the public
where the San Andreas will strike (regardless of when it will strike). It
would be, by far, less expensive to finance a pre-emergency situation at any
time-frame without a severe loss of lives rather than to pay outrageous
amounts to rebuild collapsed structures and repair the damages, not to mention
the substantial loss of lives. 

Now the question is: How do you tell the public where the earthquake is
expected to occur without telling them where it is expected to occur? Using
different language formulation your question would be: How do you inform the
public that a major earthquake is expected to occur in certain geographical
area without causing an economic and psychological turmoil in that area? The
only sensible answer to both questions is: by quietly making into law, in the
area that such an earthquake is expected to occur, an amended seismic code
that is tougher than the current code and enforcing it without any exceptions.

Legal Problem Description: The process of hiding the information about the
probability of people's lives being endangered and the property being
destroyed is an equivalent to a contemptible misleading of the public. The
collusion to misinform the public on part of the California State officials,
FEMA, and universities' seismic research groups to the effect that the
situation is better than scientifically established circumstances, for the
purpose of "self-seeking" faulty justification, is a conspiracy. The term
"self-seeking", by Webster Dictionary definition, means "seeking to further
one's own interests" and "a practice to selfishly advancing one's own ends".
In this connection, the interest of the state, federal and university
organizations is to advance their own, mutually agreed upon, counter-public-
serving, erroneous interpretation of the situation in order to avoid the
possibility of collective panic and economic hysteria. 

An agreement between two or more parties to use legal means in order to
accomplish an illegal result (or to use illegal means to achieve something
that in itself is lawful), is a conspiracy. In this particular case, to keep
silent about occurrences or situations in order (1) to obstruct public
disclosure of potential hazardous conditions that might affect the public and
(2) to promote self-seeking interests is a conspiracy. The conspiracy of
silence on part of the state of California officials is a criminal offense.  

Possible Forthcoming Litigation: Many engineering professionals and
organizations want the seismic code to be changed not only because safety code
requirements should be upgraded for high earthquake probability areas as
established by seismologists, but also because the code should be understood
by every owner of potentially earthquake-affected structure. (There are about
seven million of them in California and not one of them knows what kind of an
earthquake magnitude his/her structure is able to withstand). One of the steps
considered is to initiate an open public inquiry as to the reasons why the
code is written in such a way that it is not understood even by structural
engineers and, for that matter, by anybody else. A second part of the inquiry
would be to demand that the code be changed so that the engineers and the
general public understand what Richter (or any other meaningful) scale
magnitude the structure he/she is designing (engineering), residing or
occupying can resist.  

If State of California, in collaboration with pertinent engineering
organizations, will not change seismic code requirements within a reasonable
period of time, one of the steps contemplated by a group of concerned citizens
and open-minded members of engineering organizations is a class action lawsuit
filed with the California Supreme Court against the California Seismic Safety
Commission and State of California Department of Conservation for negligent,
careless and conspiratorial activities. 

What Should We Be Doing?  Before we are forced to come to this drastic point,
however, it is expected that the state of California will update the seismic
code as outlined above and provide the public with guidelines on pre-emptive
corrective actions (via revised seismic code) so it can protect families and
property from a disaster that might occur. Also, it would be wiser and more
economical for FEMA (i.e. for the taxpaying public) to fund and to enforce
"structural only" upgrading of structures so that a major area devastation is
avoided. If the structure cannot be structurally upgraded because of inherent
(built-in) construction conditions, it should be dismantled to protect the
public from life-threatening hazards. (The DMV, for instance, does not allow
unsafe motor vehicles, new or not new, which do not comply with highway safety
standards, to use public highways. There is no reason that similar criteria
should not be applied in the sector of structures' safety).

Note 1: The California Department of Conservation says: "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". Our comment: this may solve potential
seismic problems for structures which will be built in the future, but it does
not eliminate in one iota the public safety hazards from millions of
structures already built in California.   

Note 2: One of the Internet discussion group remarks was: "Pasadena (as an
example) has more to fear from the smaller, more numerous faults much closer
than from the San Andreas fault". Our comment: Pasadena is distanced only 24
miles away from the San Andreas fault measured perpendicularly to the fault. A
linear (straight line) interpolation of the San Andreas magnitude effect at
the distance of 24 miles will show that Pasadena will be influenced by a
medium magnitude San Andreas earthquake to a much greater degree than from the
maximum magnitude "local, minor fault" earthquake right at/under the city

Note 3: Another observation made on the Internet discussion group in
connection with how governmental organizations (including FEMA) are
influencing and controlling the work of structural engineers and are making
certain that it is to their liking is: "The United States Geological Survey
(USGS) seismic maps are not gospel.  Depending on how the head of the USGS
seismic branch wants to have the maps look will depend on what we see.
Algermissen's first map (1971), based on historical seismicity, was quite a
bit different than his second map (ca. 1985), based strictly on probability
(and politically modified), which is quite a bit different than Arthur
Frankel's map (ca.1990's), which is based on a combination of probability and
historical seismicity, which is quite a bit different from his map that
doesn't have the accelerations divided by 4 ...."  No comment here except for:
Similar modus operandi is also true for the academia.