Preparing for Earthquakes

The past couple of years have been rough for small property owners. Due to the economic and social disruption caused by the pandemic (and the continued passage of time without an earthquake), many of us have become complacent about ensuring that we’re as prepared as possible for the next temblor.

We may be forgiven our diverted attention, but Mother Nature is unforgiving and upredictable; we need to be prepared.  Here’s a list—by no means exhaustive—of things every property owner should consider.

Building Modifications/Basic Seismic Retrofits

Implementing the following changes to your building will minimize earthquake danger and damage. A great deal of information is available on this topic, particularly on the Internet, so avail yourself of these resources to ensure that you’ve taken these measure.

  • Use museum wax, brackets, cabinet latches, straps, etc. as needed to prevent objects from falling.
  • Strap water heaters; use a flexible gas supply hose.
  • Make sure you have accessible shutoff valves on all your gas appliances (stove, dryer, etc.)
  • If you have plaster ceilings, fix cracks and address any buckling that could result in ceiling collapse.
  • Make sure you have enough bolts attaching the sill plate to the foundation.
  • Install blocking between the studs into the sill plate.
  • Install sheer walling by applying plywood from the sill plate to the base of the floor joist.
  • Use metal brackets to connect rim joists to top plates.
  • Brace garage doors or large openings in building.

These basic retrofitting measures are relatively inexpensive to implement, don’t usually require the services of a structural engineer, and give you a lot of bang for your buck.

The Mandatory Soft-Story Retrofit Program

In San Francisco, about 180,000 people live in an estimated 5,700 soft-story buildings. A Department of Building Inspection study projects that such buildings will account for about half of the city’s total economic loss in a magnitude 7.2 San Andreas fault earthquake.

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The Soft-Story Retrofit Program, conceived in 2013, applies to all pre-1978 wood-frame buildings of three or more stories or two stories over a basement or underfloor area with any portion extending above grade, and containing five or more residential units. A multi-year  program with a 4-tier compliance regimen, all such buildings were to have submitted plans for retrofitting by September 15 of last year, but this date has been pushed to early 2023. If you have a soft-story building subject to the retrofit mandate you are likely aware of the program. If not, or if you have questions, go to https://sfdbi.org/softstory, call (628) 652-3706 or email to [email protected], or visit the Department of Building Inspection at 49 South Van Ness Avenue, second Floor.

Earthquake Pre-Quake Preparedness Checklist

The easiest and least costly preparation is readiness for the earthquake’s aftermath with a disaster plan and survival kit. https://earthquake.ca.gov/get-prepared/ and ready.gov offer excellent information on these critical topics. TIP: Provide this information and these websites to your tenants so that they too are prepared during and after an earthquake.

  • Know the location of your gas, electric, and water shutoff valves and know how to use them.
  • Make sure you have fire extinguishers and smoke detectors in required locations. Change batteries every six months if old-style detectors, and make sure fire extinguishers are properly charged.
  • If possible, have a corded phone as you may not have electricity for some time.
  • Have a list of contacts and an out-of-area contact.
  • Keep copies of all important documents in a safe deposit box.
  • Store an ample supply of water and non-perishable food, including a manual can opener.
  • Put together a disaster kit to last 3-5 days, including medications, first-aid kit, emergency cash, flashlight, spare glasses/contacts, water, whistle, battery- or crank-operated radio, pet food, copies of important documents, etc.

Earthquake Preparedness Training: NERT

In addition to strengthening your building and having enough supplies on hand to survive for at least 72 hours following a major earthquake, consider taking a NERT (Neighborhood Emergency Response Team) course. NERT is a free training program for individuals, neighborhood groups, and community-based organizations in San Francisco. Through the program, individuals learn the basics of personal preparedness and prevention. The training also includes hands-on disaster skills that will help individuals respond to a personal emergency as well as act as members of a coordinated neighborhood response team. For more information on NERT courses, provided free of charge by the San Francisco Fire Department, go to https://sf-fire.org/nert.

Earthquake Insurance

The state-run, non-profit California Earthquake Authority (CEA), created by the State Legislature after the damaging 1994 Northridge earthquake, offers earthquake insurance policies through 25 member residential insurance companies, including Allstate, Liberty Mutual, Farmers, and AAA. CEA currently has over $19 billion in claim-paying capacity. 

The decision to buy earthquake insurance or not should be a rational one based on a variety of factors including the age of your building, its construction type, its proximity to a known fault, its current retrofit status, the geologic structure of the earth beneath, and your financial situation. Earthquake insurance should be viewed as “catastropic insurance;”after reviewing all the factors, ask yourself: What would happen if my property were completely destroyed? Were I without coverage, could I survive financially? If the answer is “no,” and you don’t yet have insurance, it may be wise to check rates. Go to www.earthquakeauthority.com and use CEA’s premium calculator to determine how much a policy with your desired deductible would be.

[Editor’s Note:  Please be sure to check AOA’s low-cost group insurance by calling (800) 927-4262.]

 

Reprinted with permission of the Small Property Owners of San Francisco Institute (SPOSFI) News.  For more information on becoming a member of SPOSFI or to send a tax-deductible donation, please visit their website at www.smallprop.org or call (415) 647-2419.