Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 24, 2010

Key city structures vulnerable in a disaster

Many are retrofitted but would not be 'operational' after a large earthquake or flood, city leaders warn

by Sue Dremann

When the 1998 flood hit Palo Alto, Public Works and Utilities departments' workers encountered a problem that could be potentially disastrous in a more serious crisis: East Bayshore Road was impassable to cars and workers couldn't get to the city's Municipal Services Center, where equipment, trucks, backhoes and emergency supplies are located, Debra Jacobs, public works project engineer, recalled.

"We have a small fleet of rowboats," Jacobs quipped — although they weren't used to ferry workers to the center at that time.

But the situation was a lesson for how quickly essential equipment and buildings the city needs in an emergency can become useless.

City leaders say they are well aware of the vulnerability of key facilities — particularly in an earthquake.

City Hall, the police-and-fire dispatch center and the Emergency Operations Center could be dangerous to enter and non-useable in a major quake.

The Municipal Services Center remains among the most vulnerable, yet it is also among the most strategic in the city's disaster plan. The center is supposed to be the first alternative seat of city government if City Hall is inoperable, according to the city's 2007 emergency operations plan. But the center and two fire stations sit in earthquake liquefaction zones, among the most dangerous areas to be, according to Jacobs and Assistant Director of Public Works Mike Sartor.

Made of cement walls that were poured on the ground and tilted upright, then bolted together, the Municipal Services Center is of a building type that was one of the most dangerous and heavily damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Southern California, according to Director of Public Works Glenn Roberts.

Sartor did see one bright spot.

"The good news is the equipment is outside," he said.

Palo Alto leaders are grappling with how to continue a steady stream of building upgrades amid faltering revenues and budget gaps. The city is about to launch its new Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Task Force, which the council approved on Sept. 13. The 18-member task force is assigned with finding ways to reconcile the city's $500 million infrastructure backlog with the reality of current city revenues.

Replacing the Municipal Services Center is on the backlog list, at an estimated cost of $93 million, according to the city's 2011 Capital Budget.

Fire stations 3 and 4 are on the backlog list. A feasibility study found they were not worth retrofitting because they cannot accommodate large fire equipment the city now uses. Both are in the liquefaction zone and subject to flooding. The study recommended doubling the stations' sizes from 2,500 square feet to 5,000 square feet. Price tag: $14.2 million total.

The city owns 100 buildings and facilities, which include rest rooms in parks and pump stations for water, Jacobs said.

Many city buildings and the pump stations are already upgraded.

The Children's and College Terrace libraries are up to current seismic standards, Sartor said. Mitchell Park Library is being rebuilt. The Downtown library is presently under construction and will be retrofitted and is expected to be finished in May 2011. The Main Library retrofits will not start until the new Mitchell Park Library and Community Center is completed in about two years from now, Jacobs said. It will take a year to do the construction at the Main Library.

Avenidas Senior Center was upgraded in 1993-1994, but if the city loses power, library and the senior center's doors could jam, he said.

Some seismic work was done to Lucie Stern Community Center in the 1980s, in response to flooding in 1982.

But "nothing comprehensive at all" has been done to Cubberley Community Center, a former high school, according to Jacobs.

"Seismic codes didn't exist when it was still a school," she said.

One of the most serious consequences to some fire stations could be that large side-by-side doors would jam in a quake and prevent engines and equipment from exiting, Sartor said. This was an issue in the Northridge quake, he said.

But fire stations 1, 2, 5 and 8 have had seismic upgrades and comply with the higher state Standards of Essential-Services Facilities Act, which require them and other essential city services buildings to be operational. Operational means having doors functional and to have lighting, data systems, water and other necessities for habitation intact after a quake. (Stations 6 and 7 are under Stanford University's jurisdiction.)

But dispatch, the Emergency Operations Center and City Hall, although retrofitted, are still weak links and could be inaccessible, according to city leaders. All could potentially be the most serious losses to the city's emergency response in a disaster, according to officials.

At a June 7, 2010, study session, the City Council reviewed various alternatives and costs to construct a new public-safety facility at City Hall as compared to constructing a new facility off-site on vacant land.

The council discussed pursuing building a new facility off-site, downsizing a proposed new facility, building an off-site emergency operations center only, exploring alternatives to regionalized police and fire dispatch services, and setting priorities on a phased project over time in an effort to reduce project costs, Assistant to the City Manager Kelly Morariu said.

The council agreed that the public safety building is one of the city's highest infrastructure priorities, she added. A follow-up council discussion and possible action will likely occur later this year or early 2011.

But retrofit or not, Jacobs had a caveat:

"None of the city's buildings are imminent hazards. By the same token, no building is absolutely safe," she said.

Earthquakes are unpredictable.

Buildings are only as strong as the codes and standards at the time they were built, engineers said.

City Hall, built in 1967-68, was retrofitted in the 1980s. The existing police building and emergency operations center were retrofitted in 1992-1994, Roberts said.

But building integrity is to some extent theoretical.

Engineers can only plan for what they believe will be the predicted maximum quake. If a building is retrofitted to withstand a 7.9 quake but an 11-point shaker hits, the building might not stand, he said.

"It's a moving target," Sartor said — earthquake pun not intended.

The 1994 Northridge earthquake in Southern California proved that point, he said. Buildings everyone thought were safe were damaged.

"As the forensic work is done you go back to change the code," Jacobs said.

Then officials try to find the funds to change the buildings to match the code.

Part 3 in a series

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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