The Los Angeles skyline and the San Gabriel Mountains
Photograph by Adrees Latif — Reuters
By David Z. Morris
April 17, 2016

City building inspectors in Los Angeles have released a list of 13,500 buildings that will require earthquake-readiness retrofits, the L.A. Times reports. The release comes just as major earthquakes hit in both Ecuador and Japan—incidents which together show just how much difference building codes can make when the ground shakes.

The buildings in the list are largely of one type, “soft-story” complexes that have carports or garages underneath residential units. Those buildings are particularly vulnerable to collapse in a major quake, and according to the Times, they are concentrated in areas of L.A. including the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood, and Westside.

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The release of the list is the next stage in implementing an October law that makes the city’s construction standards, according to the Times, the strictest in the nation. That law came after decades of struggle to implement tougher standards, in the face of what has been characterized as a head-in-the-sand attitude towards the city’s earthquake risk.

The real stakes of L.A.’s push for earthquake safety were highlighted this week by a series of earthquakes in southern Japan and northern Ecuador. Yesterday’s quake in Ecuador was a 7.8 magnitude, significantly more severe than the 7.3 quake that struck near Kumamoto on Friday local time.

But what appear to be even wider differences in the outcomes of those two quakes show why initiatives like L.A.’s are important. Japan has perhaps the strictest earthquake safety codes in the world, and though a few buildings around Kumamoto did collapse, the death toll there is still only in the low double digits. In Ecuador, by contrast, damage has been widespread and severe, with a death toll already at 233 as of this writing, and rising.

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L.A.’s push for retrofitting will help it look more like Japan than Ecuador the next time a major earthquake strikes. The city is still addressing concerns about the cost of retrofits, which can run up to $130,000 for a single building. However, L.A. is trying to balance the impact of those costs with its sense of urgency—the new law dictates that all of the identified buildings be upgraded within seven years.

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