Determining whether concrete buildings in LA are endangered by earthquakes

The Los Angeles Times looks at a number of concrete buildings in LA that could be at serious risk in an earthquake:

Despite their sturdy appearance, many older concrete buildings are vulnerable to the sideways movement of a major earthquake because they don’t have enough steel reinforcing bars to hold columns in place.

Los Angeles officials have known about the dangers for more than 40 years but have failed to force owners to make their properties safer. The city has even rejected calls to make a list of concrete buildings.

In the absence of city action, university scientists compiled the first comprehensive inventory of potentially dangerous concrete buildings in Los Angeles.

The scientists, however, have declined to make the information public. They said they are willing to share it with L.A. officials, but only if the city requests a copy. The city has not done so, the scientists said.

Pretty interesting look at how concrete buildings can be built to withstand earthquakes. The key issue here seems to be retrofitting: should it be required and if so, how much would property owners complain about the cost? As the article notes:

Earthquake safety has rarely been an issue that draws deep public passions and outrage. Most seismic regulations are approved in the wake of destructive earthquakes, but there hasn’t been one in California in nearly 20 years.

In other words, occasional disasters allows room for complacency. When the events are rare, people will question whether the money should be better spent elsewhere. This is part of the debate over other disasters as well like: how should buildings in Tornado Alley be constructed if tornadoes might occur? Should New York be protected from hurricanes and rising water levels by constructing gates and barriers? How much should be spent on levees in New Orleans to avoid situations like that after Hurricane Katrina?

Building Gulf Coast houses on 10-20 foot stilts

Federal regulations regarding building on flood areas on the Gulf Coast have led to a new kind of up-in-the-air house:

I’ve visited the Mississippi Gulf Coast at odd intervals since Hurricane Katrina struck almost eight years ago, and have been keeping tabs on an emerging architectural typology. Ordinary suburban-style neocolonials and ranch houses are being jacked up on sturdy wooden or concrete piers ten or 20 feet in the air, the heights dictated by the Base Flood Elevation set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and enforced by insurance companies. These houses fascinate me because most of them make few concessions to the fact that they’re not built at grade. They look as if someone has played a cruel joke on the owners, as if the family had gone out to dinner and come back to find their house out of reach…

I know a little about the prehistory of these houses. About six weeks after Katrina, the then-governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, invited New Urbanist architect supreme Andrés Duany to bring pretty much everyone he knew to Biloxi to envision a rebirth of the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast. The Mississippi Renewal Forum, as it was called, filled a giant ballroom of the Isle of Capri casino with some 200 industrious, inspired architects, planners, and engineers, all champions of pedestrian-oriented development.

But after several feverish days of dream-ing up antebellum casinos and neoclassical Walmarts, reality intruded. In the wee hours of day four, the conference leadership received the newest flood maps for the Gulf Coast from FEMA, and they showed Base Flood Elevations that were five to ten feet higher than those the designers had been working with. In the Velocity Zones, areas most likely to be impacted by a storm surge, the lowest habitable floor of a home suddenly had to be 21 feet in the air.

“I think the problem is totally recalibrating the aesthetic,” Duany said, leading an emergency meeting. “It’s not taking antebellum houses and cranking them up. The aesthetic has more to do with lighthouses.” While others in the room pointed out the political and economic ramifications of the flood map—some towns might not be able to rebuild at all, poor people would be driven off the coast for good—Duany was nonchalant. “It will be like Tahiti,” he said. “Totally cool.”

It is worth reading the rest as it discusses how such stilted homes make it really difficult to have the close community life desired by New Urbanists. On one hand, I imagine some sort of community will develop if all the homes share the same fate. At the least, they all become known as the people who live in the odd houses. On the other hand, being so high in the air may reinforce the notion that Americans care more about their private spaces – within their homes – than street life and the community.

One odd bonus of a home so far in the air: imagine the size of the vehicle that could fit below.

Edmonton floods show how wealthier city residents have more resources to deal with urban disasters

A sociologist argues wealthier residents of Edmonton can better respond to big floods compared to lower-income residents in places like New Orleans:

While flooding did affect Calgary’s lower-income neighbourhoods, including Bowness and Montgomery, their gentrification in the past decade has attracted a more middle-class crowd.

As such, the dynamics of recovery in the city will differ markedly from past flooding disasters. The people most affected will have significant resources at their disposal, Haney said.

“It’s never easy and it’s still really traumatic, but it’s different than most floods in that, most of the time, the people who flood are the people who don’t have the ability to fund their own recoveries.”

Moreover, flooding has affected about 12 per cent of Calgary residential real estate, while about 80 per cent of New Orleans was under water for two weeks. With flooding victims able to get support from family and friends, shelters in the city have been running under capacity.

This makes sense but it is an underreported feature of disaster coverage: while lower-income residents will have much more difficulty getting back on their feet, higher-income residents can draw upon their wealth, insurance, and social networks with more resources.

It would be interesting to see how much government disaster aid goes to those with higher incomes compared to those with lower incomes. While a major flood or tornado or hurricane can be devastating to everyone, not everyone is at the same starting point in making a recovery.

Designing a “disaster-proof home”

There may be plenty of homebuyers who would like the assurance a “disaster-proof home” could provide:

Charles Roig, a longtime architect and owner of the company, and his twin brother, Daniel, a structural engineer, started working on the idea for disaster-proof homes 14 years ago. After more than 250 pages of structural calculations, they came up with a wood truss design and a patented wind-force resistance system that Charles Roig says can withstand winds of more than 200 mph that are associated with a category EF5 tornado…

“Every time I saw something on television and saw tornado destruction, it just ripped my guts out,” Roig said. “I couldn’t stop this.”

Gibbons likens the job of marketing disaster-proof houses to the early days of selling environmentally friendly homes because consumers have to buy into the concept before they’re willing to pay more for the features. She thinks collectors will be among the first to gravitate toward such a house.

Roig estimates one of his houses would cost 15 to 25 percent more than a conventionally built home. Most of the designs are single-story homes and contemporary in design.

We’ll see how popular these might become. Even in places where tornadoes are more common, they are rare events and the odds of one hitting a particular house are even smaller. But, a one-time occurrence may be enough to convince plenty of people that this is worthwhile.

See the R-Evolution Living website. Here is what they claim about their homes:

  • Tornado-proof, Hurricane-proof, Earthquake-proof
  • Secure against small blasts from inside or out AND Fire-proof possible
  • Able to resist the effects of Sink-Holes
  • Safe, affordable, attractive and GREEN
  • Made from renewable indigenous resources
  • Luxurious and upgradable
  • Backed by Insurance companies
  • Protecting you even while you sleep

With the heavy rains in the Chicago area in the last week, can they also promise to be flood-proof? And here is how the structure works, according to the FAQs page:

How does this structure work, exactly?
The main premise of a R-Evolution Living(TM) VPU, is a principal we refer to as an “Adjacency Structural Matrix” or ASM. ASM is a series of components that rely on the adjacent components in order to gain additional strength. So, instead of a wall required to be 16 feet thick in order to resist the immense force of an EF5 tornado’s 235 mile-per-hour wind, a series of patented components called “ribs” transfer the force to the adjacent members. The floors and ceilings, therefore, now accept the resistance to the force against the wall. Similarly, the exterior walls are now 11’-6” tall “beams” resisting the forces at the roof and at the end walls. This entire system is then linked together so that the unit acts as a living, single, extremely strong component.

Sounds interesting. It may just come down to the price differential…

Living in a more isolated neighborhood of McMansions could limit how long you live?

In discussing a recent piece  from sociologist Eric Klinenberg about how cities can better prepare for climate change and natural disasters, MarketWatch jumps to an odd conclusion about McMansions and longevity:

As politicians and civil servants study how to prepare communities for the possible effects of future disasters or climate change, Klinenberg writes, they’re taking social infrastructure into account. And while it’s tricky to extrapolate broader lessons from these very specific situations, Klinenberg’s work does seem to reinforce the broader point that, for older people, social isolation can become a health threat in its own right. For the baby boomer trying to decide between a “Main Street” condo and a McMansion, or a retirement community and a farmhouse, it’s food for thought.

I don’t understand why a McMansion is mentioned here. The suggestion does fit with general stereotypes that neighborhoods of McMansions tend to be antisocial places where wealthy suburbanites only want to retreat to their electronics and nuclear families rather than engage the broader world. Critics suggest McMansions are all about privatization and not engaging with others. Hence, solutions to McMansions and sprawl such as New Urbanism tend to design things in such a way to encourage more interaction.

But, this connection doesn’t necessarily fit with Klinenberg’s analysis of the 1995 heat wave in Chicago. McMansions tend to be located in wealthier areas where people have the resources to access other forms of social support. In other words, would you be better off in a dense urban neighborhood with a strong social infrastructure or a looser suburban neighborhood with more money? Also, do a McMansion and a farmhouse really fit in the same category for isolation?

In the end, I would like to see data that people living in McMansions suffer in terms of longevity because of their houses and neighborhoods as compared to other settings.

Building more resilient cities

Constructing cities and social and political institutions that are resilient in response to disasters, like Hurricane Sandy, is not an easy task:

An article from The New York Times this past September explored New York City’s vulnerability from flooding, casting an eerie hindsight over this week’s storm. Dr. Klaus H. Jacob, a research scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and an adviser to the city on climate change (also author of this predictive study), told the Times that subway tunnels would have flooded during Hurricane Irene had the storm surge been one foot higher. “We’ve been extremely lucky,” he told the paper. “I’m disappointed that the political process hasn’t recognized that we’re playing Russian roulette.” Today, repairs and service restoration are only just beginning in New York’s flooded subway system.

The opportunity is to rethink infrastructure in terms of resilience, and not just rebuild it as it was (as this post in Scientific American points out). As University of Toronto professor Christopher Kennedy points out in his important book on The Evolution of Great World Cities, the definition of infrastructure goes far beyond roads, airports, tunnels, rail systems, subways and bridges and includes the rules, code and norms which govern how cities are built. His research points out that London’s rise to global commercial dominance in the 17th century was fueled by its response to the catastrophic fires of 1666. These led to sweeping changes in the city’s building codes and widening of its streets, which in turn led to increased densities, the adoption of new building technologies, and ultimately remade the city in ways that put it on a new growth trajectory.
The roadblock to building resilient cities, quite simply, has less to do with science and more to do with institutions and politics, as Steve Nash pointed out a couple of years ago in The New Republic.

For one thing, the politics of sea-level rise are still hazy—no one seems to agree on whether it’s a local, state, or federal responsibility. And Congress is not doing much to resolve these issues. The climate bill that passed the House last year merely calls for more research, even though more blue-ribbon panels seem superfluous at this point. “Do you need cost-benefit analysis to know that you’re going to protect Manhattan?” asks [Jim Titus of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency]. “That you’re not going to allow the Jefferson Memorial to go underwater? That Miami is going to continue to exist?” Those aren’t trick questions. But, for now, they’re going unanswered.

In other words, it isn’t just about rebuilding the same thing over and over again. Cities, and countries, need to develop plans by which the new construction is better suited to possible future disasters. The response to massive fires is cited above (and it reminds me of the changes in building after the Chicago Fire in 1871) but this has also occurred in response to earthquakes by setting codes so that buildings are better suited to face future threats. And being able to develop forward-thinking plans requires more flexible institutions that can respond to whatever changes come along. What worked in the past won’t necessarily work in the future so only changing after a major event or disaster is not a good thing. At the same time, such major events also may allow for a more sweeping reaction and change to take place in cities.

Beware of the exploding McMansion

Here is a case from San Diego involving a McMansion, a gas explosion, and a successful lawsuit:

Propane leaks and burned down homes? Not here where we all reach out for our piece of the American dream… nice house, white-picket fence, 2.4 children, shiny mini-van driven by the happy wife with the home perm, the corner office at work with a pimped-out Gold Timex wrist watch just waiting for your wrist at retirement. But a propane leak had to go and ruin all that you have worked for. Perhaps Frank Sinatra had it right when he crooned about life and “riding high in April, being shot down in May.” I guess this is where Frank puts you in August.

Such was the case when a Southern California couple’s dream McMansion was completely destroyed by a propane leak that ignited a gargantuan explosion that razed the house down to the ground. Mother Nature then made an unwelcome appearance at the party, finishing off the home with a coup-de-graw in the form of an enormous fire ensuring nothing was left…

Apparently not, as a Trial Judge in San Diego laid the lion-share of the blame at the well-insured feet of SDG&E and a unidentified Plumbing Company and awarded the couple $7.12 million in damages after a hard fought trial in which the defense Lawyers were overwhelmed by the skill and tenacity of the experienced Accident Attorney in San Diego (and when Karma is on your side, I hear it is fairly hard to lose these cases).

Unfortunately, both the husband and the wife were severely injured in the explosion and subsequent fire. SDG&E was assigned to 40% of the liable for causing the “exploding McMansion,” because they apparently failed to warn the couple about the dangers of a gas leak and the importance of installing a gas leak detection alarm that would have warned them about this exact type of leak, presumably saving them from Karmic wrath unleashed by Mother Nature’s most vicious weapon. The plumbing company was found to be 30% at fault because they “nicked” the underground pipeline during routine maintenance, which is what actually caused the leak. The Insurance company for the plumbing company did the right thing and settled out before trial-which was strategically fruitful as they paid much less than they would have had to if they had participated in the trial.

Another possible reason to avoid McMansions: they can be dangerous!


Wildfires threaten the vanity of McMansions?

One journalist suggests it takes events like wildfires to remind us of the frailty of McMansions:

Nature makes a mockery of our vanity. We live in flood and fire zones, nurture stately oaks and take shade under pines holding the best air of the Rocky Mountains. We plant villas next to sandstone spires called the Garden of the Gods, and McMansions in Virginia stocked with people who have the world at their fingertips.

Then, with a clap, a boom and a roar, fire marches through a subdivision on a conveyance of 60 mile an hour winds. A platoon of thunderstorms so loaded with energy it has its own category name — derecho — cuts a swath from east of Chicago to the Atlantic.

The pines flame and hiss, shooting sparks on the house next door, a fortress no more. The oaks tumble and crush roofs. Almost 350 homes burn to the ground, and nearly 5 million people lose all electricity in sweltering heat. Lobbyists and congressmen curse at mute cellphones and sweat through their seersucker. The powerful are powerless.

No home can stand up against fires like that. I wonder if anyone is developing a “wildfire proof home”?

The sociologist director of the Natural Hazards Center discusses how sociology helps us understand responses to disasters

While disasters seem to be a growing area of interest across academic disciplines, a sociologist who is the director of the Natural Hazards Center talks about how sociology approaches the topic:

What’s sociology’s role in emergency management?

Sociology is a broad area, and sociologists are interested in a variety of things related to disasters and emergency management. They certainly do research and know a lot about individual, group and organizational behavior in disasters; a good deal about warning processes and warning systems; risk perception; the social factors that are associated with preparing for disasters, disaster recovery and some of the social factors that contribute to differences or disparities in the recovery process and outcomes; the politics and economics of disaster mitigation. These are some topics sociologists are interested in.

Have you done any research on what motivates people to prepare for disasters?

There’s been a lot of research on preparedness, especially household preparedness, and the research has [found] that being better prepared is associated with having higher levels of income, homeownership, to some extent with previous disaster experience, and having children in the home. These are all sociological factors that help to explain preparedness…

During your research, has there been a finding that most surprised you?

I found a lot of things that are contrary to common sense or the way most people might think about disaster behavior. One is the overwhelming altruistic pro-social response that most people engage in during disasters. It’s not like the disaster movies. I also think there are many important findings about the importance of volunteer groups and emergent groups in disasters. Ordinary community citizens can be very resourceful and can engage extensively in self-help and mutual aid when disasters happen. They don’t need to be told what to do by others. I’m seeing growing recognition that while we need experts in emergency management — we need well trained, well educated people — that the whole community is involved in mitigating, preparing for and responding to and recovering from disasters. That whole community approach was a big focus last year and will be this year from FEMA and other agencies. But it’s what sociologists have been saying all along.

I like the reference to how disaster movies tend to play up the atomistic responses to disasters. Movies, books, and TV shows tend to play up the image of the lone wanderer (typically a male?) or a few people trying to pick their way through issues with other people and the natural environment. Some of this seems to underlie recommendations about disaster preparedness: you can’t count on others to help and indeed, you might need to protect what you have from others. Granted, a large enough disaster will disrupt the response of organized government but ordinary citizens can still help each other.

This reminds of a humorous scenario I’ve discussed with several family members. In this hypothetical situation, family members would live on some sort of large piece of property where everyone could have a house yet still have some space. On this “compound,” different people could carry out different tasks that could serve the group in the event of some large disaster in the larger world. For example, being a nurse would be really useful here. However, when the conversation turns to what I could contribute to the larger group as a sociologist, I’m left suggesting something like I could help “enhance critical thinking skills.” Now I know I can contribute something else: I can help everyone work together and can helpfully point out the social factors that will aid or hinder our efforts.

Also, perhaps sociology majors would be uniquely suited to work in the area of emergency management?

Verdict: very limited baby boom in Chicago due to Feb 2011 snowstorm

It is a common story that natural disasters lead to baby booms as residents have little else to do except spend “quality time together” (a perhaps unintentional euphemism from the story cited in the next sentence). But the academic research on the topic isn’t so clear – here is a quick review from Friday’s front page story in the Chicago Tribune:

Udry’s [negative] finding [regarding a lengthy 1970 New York City blackout] is frequently viewed as the final word in “disaster babies” — the popular debunking website cites it in declaring the phenomenon a myth — but more contemporary research suggests there might be something to the idea.

A 2005 study of birth rates following the Oklahoma City bombing looked at 10 years of data and found that the counties closest to the site had indeed experienced higher than expected numbers of births after the attack…

But perhaps the most intriguing evidence supporting the idea of disaster babies was published last year by Brigham Young University economist Richard Evans. He and his colleagues looked at hurricane-prone counties on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and compared birth rates that came nine months after the announcement of impending storms.

They found that while the rates went up after the mildest expected disruption (a tropical storm watch) they went down after the most serious (a hurricane warning)…

If Evans is right that the blizzard would only produce a 2% increase in the birth rate, this is not a huge jump. In fact, Evans is cited later in the story saying that this would only be a difference of a “few dozen births” throughout the Chicago region of 8.3 million people. So if there is an effect, it is minimal. But urban legends have lives of their own – another example is the recurring issue of tainted Halloween candy that sociologist Joel Best gamely tries to stamp out.

What about other data regarding the February blizzard like a rise in heart attacks or back injuries or other medical traumas? I can think we can be pretty sure that there was a lot of shoveling that took place.

Even with a small drive, it took quite a while to clear all that snow.