Washington—Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today sent a letter to the Commerce Department and Federal Emergency Management Agency calling for detailed guidelines to ensure federal agencies comply with the administration’s recent executive order on earthquake preparedness.
Feinstein also called on the agencies to develop a plan to upgrade seismic-safety standards to encourage buildings be designed for post-disaster occupancy. Stronger standards would make communities more resilient.
Current commercial and residential building standards are designed to save lives, but do not necessarily ensure buildings can be used after serious earthquakes. Updated standards would help ensure communities can function after serious earthquakes and commercial developers could use the standards when designing buildings in high-risk seismic areas.
Feinstein wrote, “In order to make cities and federal properties more resilient, seismic safety codes need to ensure that buildings can function after a disaster. Saving lives must be the first priority of building codes. However, if buildings are damaged so badly as to be unusable after an earthquake, it could cripple a city like San Francisco for years. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans lost over 50 percent of its population due to the uninhabitability of residential and commercial buildings caused by the disaster. Over a decade has passed since the storm and the city still has not recovered its entire population. It is my view that your agencies need to take a leadership role in making sure seismic safety codes ensure safe and resilient communities.”
Full text of the letter follows.
March 17, 2016
The Honorable Willie E. May
Under Secretary of Commerce
Standards and Technology
100 Bureau Drive, Stop 1000
Gaithersburg, MD 20899-1000
The Honorable Craig Fugate
Federal Emergency Management Agency
500 C Street, SW
Washington, DC 20427
Dear Under Secretary May and Administrator Fugate,
I write today to ask your agencies to develop and issue stringent public safety guidelines for federal agencies to mitigate seismic safety risks. California's seismic risk is exceptionally high. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there is a near certain chance the state will be struck by at least one major earthquake in the next 30 years. Furthermore, seismically-deficient buildings can pose a risk to public safety from smaller magnitude earthquakes; magnitude 6.0 earthquakes occur, on average, every 1.2 years in California.
I was pleased President Obama issued an executive order: "Establishing a Federal Earthquake Risk Management Standard." Federal agencies need detailed instructions how to comply with this order. Therefore, I ask you each do the following
- Work with federal agencies to develop a clear mandate to identify the necessary seismic corrections for exceptionally high risk buildings and publish a risk-based schedule for completing seismic corrections.
The majority of deaths in major earthquakes are caused by severe structural damage to buildings, including collapse or the failure of unreinforced masonry. For example, the 316 bed main hospital at the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center is seismically deficient and located in a high risk area. This medical center serves more than 80,000 veterans and is staffed by 3,900 employees. This building has been number one on the department's list, which has yet to request funds to retrofit or replace the building.
- Create clear direction for federal agencies to take immediate steps to mitigate non-structural seismic safety risks.
There are low cost steps that federal agencies can take immediately to prevent injuries and deaths during earthquakes. A University of California, Los Angeles, study of the 1994 Northridge Earthquake found that a significant number of injuries are caused by nonstructural components like furniture, fixtures, ceilings, and pipes. Beyond the threat to health and safety, this type of damage can impede safe evacuation, delay rescue, create fire hazards, slow post-disaster recovery, and increase repair costs. Simple steps like bolting bookcases to walls can save lives and make federal offices more resilient.
- Create a plan to conduct a compliance audit that includes independent inspection of a representative sample of federal buildings to determine if seismic codes were properly adhered to during construction or retrofitting.
Independent inspection is the best way to assess whether seismic standards are followed. In the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, the 6-story CTV building collapsed killing 115-the biggest loss of the life in the disaster. The Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission found that the building collapsed due to both inadequate design plans and defective construction which lacked strong oversight. The best earthquake safety standards will do nothing to protect people if they are not strictly adhered to during construction.
- Convene experts and appropriate agencies to develop a plan to modernize seismic safety building standards that meet a performance objective of post-disaster occupancy.
In order to make cities and federal properties more resilient, seismic safety codes need to ensure that buildings can function after a disaster. Saving lives must be the first priority of building codes. However, if buildings are damaged so badly as to be unusable after an earthquake, it could cripple a city like San Francisco for years. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans lost over 50 percent of its population due to the inhabitability of residential and commercial buildings caused by the disaster. Over a decade has passed since the storm and the city still has not recovered its entire population. It is my view that your agencies need to take a leadership role in making sure seismic safety codes ensure safe and resilient communities.
Thank you for your attention to my recommendations. I request that you keep my staff briefed on actions your agency is taking on seismic safety. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.
United States Senator