Los Angeles Times

In California, urgent lessons must be learned

San Andreas fault is capable of destructio­n as severe as that seen in Turkey and Syria.


This week’s catastroph­ic earthquake in Turkey and Syria is just the latest warning of the potential risks for California and other seismicall­y active areas.

Some California cities have retrofitte­d or demolished problem buildings after quakes in the 1980s and 1990s. But many buildings in the state have not endured the kind of intense shaking experience­d in Turkey and Syria.

The magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck southeaste­rn Turkey at 4:17 a.m. Monday on the East Anatolian fault. Aftershock­s have rippled throughout the southeast part of the country and Syria. A magnitude 7.5 aftershock on a different fault struck nine hours later, with an epicenter 60 miles to the northeast, producing another round of devastatio­n.

The San Andreas fault is capable of similar activity.

“We’ve had 7.8 earthquake­s in our historic past. We’ve had a great run without them, but it’s important to be prepared for these possibilit­ies in the future,” said U.S. Geological Survey research geophysici­st Kate Scharer.

Two of those have occurred on the San Andreas: the 1906 earthquake that destroyed much of San Francisco and the 1857 quake in

Southern California that ruptured a length of the fault from Monterey County through Los Angeles County and into the Cajon Pass.

“There will be 7.8s in our future. Absolutely. We have the faults, we’ve seen it in the past, it will happen again,” said seismologi­st Lucy Jones, a research associate at Caltech. “The timing of them, as far as we can tell, is random. And there’s no way to say when it’s going to be happening . ... Compared to the long-term average, we’ve been quiet for a while.”

The scale of the building collapses in Turkey and Syria, some captured on video, could be attributed to a number of factors.

Some of the structures may have been built before the advent of modern building codes. The collapses could also be due to corruption in safety inspection­s or incompeten­ce in design practices — issues that have come up in Mexico, Taiwan and New Zealand.

But structural engineers have said that a big quake in California would also be devastatin­g, if not on the same scale. They have long warned about the risk of brittle, concrete buildings collapsing, as occurred during the 1971 Sylmar and 1994 Northridge quakes.

When the concrete Veterans Administra­tion Hospital in San Fernando pancaked in the 1971 earthquake, 49 people were killed.

Minimum constructi­on requiremen­ts were strengthen­ed in the years after the Sylmar quake, but those rules affected only new constructi­on. More concrete buildings suffered significan­t damage in the 1994

Northridge quake.

David Cocke, president of the Earthquake Engineerin­g Research Institute and a structural engineer with Gardena-based Structural Focus, said some of the collapsed buildings he has seen in news coverage from Turkey appear to have been constructe­d from nonductile concrete, in which inadequate steel reinforcin­g bars allow concrete to explode from columns when shaken.

Similar videos emerged after a magnitude 7.1 earthquake in 2017 struck Mexico. One showed a building wobbling, followed by concrete

falling out of a ground-floor column; the columns then flexed, and the upper floors crashed down, sinking into a cloud of dust.

A concrete school in Mexico City collapsed in that quake, killing 19 students and seven adults.

Videos and photos from Turkey and Syria show buildings of various eras — some old, some modern — collapsing. But they also show that many others survived the shaking. Experts say new buildings in Turkey — when properly built to local codes — are comparable to California’s standards.

Some of the collapses in

Turkey occurred many hours after the predawn mainshock. The magnitude 7.5 aftershock occurred around 1:24 p.m.

Whether from one quake or two, “the longer the duration [of shaking], the better the chance a building is going to collapse,” Cocke said.

Scharer traveled to the site of a magnitude 7.1 earthquake in 2011 in eastern Turkey, which produced intense shaking under the city of Van; a subsequent, lesspowerf­ul quake caused additional damage.

“We often call them a doublet,” Scharer said. The initial signs of building weakness can be observed when big diagonal cracks, looking like the letter X, are visible in the building.

“So the building gets weakened by the first earthquake,” she said. “And then when you have a significan­t aftershock come through, then they actually collapsed. So it’s sort of a one-two punch.”

In California, a magnitude 7.8 quake would produce damage far more widespread than was caused by the tremblors of the last century.

A U.S. Geological Survey simulation of a magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Southern California led researcher­s to determine that it was plausible such an event could cause nearly 1,800 deaths and 50,000 injuries, and destroy major utilities carrying fuel, power and water. In Northern California, a simulation of a magnitude 7 earthquake on the Hayward fault east of San Francisco showed that there could be at least 800 deaths from the quake, plus hundreds more from fires afterward.

Either scenario would result in the deadliest earthquake­s to hit California in more than 100 years. A magnitude 7.5 quake on the Puente Hills fault — which runs underneath highly populated areas of L.A. and Orange counties — could kill 3,000 to 18,000 people, according to the USGS and Southern California Earthquake Center.

Of the world’s active seismic zones, California and Turkey, along with New Zealand, are in a category of their own. These three areas have long, mature faults and are on land, as opposed to Japan, where the biggest faults are under the ocean.

In Turkey, the East Anatolian and North Anatolian faults are of a similar type to the San Andreas — relatively more likely to rupture in a single human’s lifetime than others.

The land beneath central Turkey is seismicall­y active as it is squeezed between the Arabian plate, which is pushing northward, and Europe, said Ross Stein, a geophysics lecturer at Stanford University and chief executive of Temblor, which produces earthquake risk models. “And so it’s squeezed out to the west.”

The East Anatolian, like the San Andreas, is a strikeslip fault — one that runs vertically, and the ground moves sideways during the rupture.

“You get very strong shaking right along the fault, much stronger than you see even not too far away,” Jones said.

The fact that the epicenters of the two major Turkey quakes were 60 miles apart shows that follow-ups can occur at a significan­t distance from the mainshock.

“Lots of aftershock­s are on other faults,” Jones noted.

‘There will be 7.8s in our future. Absolutely. We have the faults, we’ve seen it in the past, it will happen again.’ — Lucy Jones, seismologi­st at Caltech

 ?? Khalil Hamra Associated Press ?? A SEARCHER combs through building rubble Monday in Adana, Turkey. A 7.8 earthquake in Southern California could kill nearly 1,800 people, researcher­s say.
Khalil Hamra Associated Press A SEARCHER combs through building rubble Monday in Adana, Turkey. A 7.8 earthquake in Southern California could kill nearly 1,800 people, researcher­s say.

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