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San Francisco unprepared for repeat of 1906 quake

The city that rose from the rubble and ashes of the massive earthquake of 1906 is far from prepared for what many experts say is the inevitable "next great quake."

Following the recent moderate jolts here, officials are taking a hard look at earthquake preparedness. What they are finding (and admitting) is that the city is woefully lacking in this regard. This time, however, the vow is that the matter will not be quietly shelved in favor of more politically palatable issues.

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Of particular concern are some 11,000 unreinforced masonry buildings (mostly brick) constructed before the city's building code was rewirtten in 1948 to take earthquakes into consideration. San Francisco has many more of these buildings than Los Angeles even though it is a much smaller city. Most are concentrated in crowded downtown areas, including Chinatown.

As an indicator of how dangerous these buildings may be, their earthquake insurance policies cost seven times as much as those for wood-frame structures. Of the 60 people killed in the 1970 San Fernando Valley quake in southern California, 50 were in a single brick building.

Notwithstanding high costs and questions of liability, which arise when potentially dangerous buildings are identified, other cities are far ahead of San Francisco in addressing this problem. Santa Rosa so far has upgraded about 150 of its 650 hazardous buildings. Los Angeles has identified and mad public the 8,000 brick buildings there, and the City Council is working on an ordinance that will require demolition or reinforcement. It is felt that such improvements could save 7,000 lives and prevent 26,000 casualties in the event of an earthquake of 1906 proportions (above 8 points on the Richter scale).

San Francisco emergency services director Philip Day concedes, however, that "at the highest level of government in San Francisco, not very much has happened in the past 10 years."

A private earthquake hazard survey commissioned by city planners has been gathering dust, and the city's "seismic investigation and hazard survey advisory committee" was allowed to lapse two years ago. Since an ordinance requiring that parapets and cornices be braced was enacted 11 years ago, less than 2,000 of 15,000 buildings have been inspected and fewer than 250 permits have been issued.

But this lack of official action, which seems to reflect a general public apathy, now seems to be changing.

Mayor Dianne Feinstein has asked the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to reinstate the city's earthquake advisory committee and also begin indentifying and making safer unreinforced masonry buildings.

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"At the very minimum, people ought to be told that the building they live in is not up to code," Board of Supervisors president John Molinari told a City Hall hearing last week. It was only the second such hearing on earthquake safety the city's legislative body had held since 1971.

"The question is not so much how is it going to be done, but how is it going to be financed," said Robert Levy, San Francisco's chief building inspector. With Proposition 13 and subsequent measures cutting taxes and government spending, the city faces a serious budget deficit.

There is little doubt that the expense of upgrading thousands of older residential buildings would be passed along to tenants in a city where housing costs already are among the highest in the nation. But it also is pointed out that the necessary job of making San Francisco safer from earthquakes will not get any cheaper with the passage of time.


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