With earthquakes topping the list of looming threats in Palo Alto, city officials indicated this week that they plan to upgrade local laws to discourage the construction of seismically shaky homes.
The City Council on Monday asked city staff to look at ordinances that other cities have for promoting earthquake-resilient homes and to consider strategies that Palo Alto can undertake to reach this objective. Planning Director Hillary Gitelman said staff will return to the Council with this information in 30 to 60 days.
The request was made during the Council's discussion of the Threat Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment, a report that considers different threats the city faces and offers recommendations for addressing these risks. In the "natural" category, earthquakes and floods were identified as the top threats. Other threats near the top of the list include airplane accidents, hazardous material spills, urban fires and cyberattacks.
Though the Council's discussion ranged widely, members were particularly concerned about the earthquake threat, with Councilman Larry Klein and Pat Burt requesting that staff return with strategies to address the dozens of local buildings seen as particularly vulnerable to the earthquake threat. These include about 124 "soft story" structures, which the report notes would be at some risk in the event of a major earthquake. These buildings typically have parking garages on the bottom story and one or more stories above it, said Kenneth Dueker, director of the city's Office of Emergency Services.
"They tend to collapse catastrophically and it looks like there never was a ground floor," Dueker said.
The threat report, which was assembled after months of work by city officials, top emergency response officials from neighboring jurisdictions and consultants from the firm Dewberry, notes that past land-use decisions in Palo Alto "have not always taken hazards into consideration."
"Moreover, older buildings and infrastructure reflect the construction and engineering standards of their era, which in most cases fall short of current standards for seismic safety."
The report notes that the city has been mitigating the potential earthquake threat by strictly enforcing the seismic-safety restrictions in the building code and by providing development rights to developers who perform seismic upgrades. These incentives seem to have had some effect. The number of soft-story buildings has gone down from 130 in 2004 to 124 today, Dueker said. In addition, the number of buildings with "unreinforced masonry" -- where major building components such as walls and chimneys are not braced by reinforcing beams -- has dropped from 44 to 23 during the same period.
Even so, the Council generally agreed that the city can do more. Councilman Pat Burt said he was particularly interested in learning about "the most aggressive programs that jurisdictions have taken" on this topic. The focus, he said, should move "from merely encouraging or incentivizing" seismically sound buildings to having "a future where we're going to cause these changes to happen."
He requested that staff review the city's existing programs that support retrofit measures and consider "what gaps we have that can be filled in these programs." Klein encouraged staff to move fast with this review.
"I'm worried we might be missing the Big One by delaying on this," Klein said.
The Council's discussion also touched on some of the other threats identified in the report, including cyberattacks. Dueker noted that the city has already suffered numerous cyberattacks, "some of them more serious than others."
Among the more notable included a "denial of service" attack on the city's 911 center, a type of attack in which someone overwhelms a target computer with messages, thereby denting system access to legitimate users. Dueker told the Weekly this attack occurred about six months ago and appeared to have originated overseas. The attack redirected people's phone calls, causing them to call the city's call center. He noted, however, that the attack did not hinder the city's emergency responders from performing their jobs.
"We haven't had any damage directly from any of these attacks," Dueker said.
To reduce the threat, Palo Alto has anti-virus software on the city's desktops and laptops; malware protection for its Web and email systems; and a firewall for the IT network, according to the threat report. The city also has an Energy Assurance Plan that focuses on minimizing energy interruptions during emergency, the report states.