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Earthquakes: Lessons Learned


What business owners need to know and do before the next earthquake.

An Interview with David Cocke, S.E., F.SEI, F.ASCE, F.SEAOC

Managing Director of SAFEq™ Solutions, explains why being prepared for earthquakes in the future is so important to cities and business owners alike, and how small steps can have a huge impact on getting “Back to Business.”


Q: What are simple things business owners can do now to avoid an earthquake catastrophe?

First and foremost, a business owner needs to identify and understand their risk so that they can make a conscious effort to reduce it. To start that means doing a thorough evaluation of their facilities. For instance, the obvious things are the non-structural items that can fall and cause injury or damage: Bookcases, lights, etc. need to be anchored. Most businesses don’t get around to that after they bring their furniture and fixtures into the building. Second, determine any structural strengthening that can make a substantial difference in how well their building will perform in an earthquake. As an example, we witnessed the big difference in San Francisco with a city-required seismic upgrade for minor parapet bracing. This simple upgrade saved hundreds of buildings. When that type of building starts to fail they start at an upper parapet corner and just peel down. That little bit of strengthening in that one area helped improve many buildings’ integrity and saved a lot of lives. Depending on the type of building, there are many such small improvements that can be done before an event to make a big difference.

Q: How do campus owners deal with multiple buildings?

An important step is to ask: do we have an inventory of our buildings and a sense of how they are going to perform individually? This is very important because buildings and their uses, especially campuses, evolve over time. One building may be quite a bit older than another, and it may have been modified over time. In addition, we learn more about how buildings perform with every earthquake so depending on when a building was constructed and its construction type, we learn further how one building may perform differently than another. Code milestones for building materials change over the years based on what we learn and therefore design requirements change. And with the changing uses of buildings on a campus, it is really important to gather building information beforehand and have a preparedness plan in place, based on that knowledge.

Q: How far do codes go in building performance?

Earthquake codes have been evolving since 1933. The promise of the code is that it will provide life/safety for building occupants in the event of a major earthquake. However, meeting code requirements doesn’t necessarily address a building’s performance. The specific uses of different buildings may change the owner’s performance requirements for each individual building. With every earthquake, structural engineers go onsite – a real-life “laboratory” – to learn lessons about how different buildings performed. With every 3-year code cycle, the design requirements are updated based on the lessons learned. In the 1980s computers entered the picture, and now our analysis is extremely sophisticated, but the fundamental details of every earthquake are different. You can design a building for how you think it will perform during an earthquake and code will reach the fundamentals, but, in reality, each earthquake is unique.

Q. If you were to build a building today for your average client, would you recommend designing it beyond code?

Depending on the project type, and the criticality of what is performed in that building determines to what level of performance the structure is designed. As an example, there are higher standards used for facilities such as hospitals, police stations, etc. Hospitals are designed for a 50% higher force level than an average building. They need to have the resilience for immediate occupancy and functionality. Data centers are also an essential facility from a business perspective. We have conversations with our building owners about their redundancy and the risk that a significant interruption would have to their business. To achieve a higher performance level may cost approximately 10% to 20% more for the structural design elements of a building of that nature. Every facility 
needs to be designed based on its function and relation to the business it supports.

Q. Are there any new ideas on the horizon in terms of building resilience and structural design?

Right now, the structural community is working on a building rating system that addresses resilience. It will provide an easy to understand value rating for safety, economics, and downtime. This will help the public to understand the difference in resilience and preparedness, from one building to another. A building owner can know what their building’s rating is and tenants can see a comparative impact rating from building to building. As far as new technologies in building materials go, there are always new materials being tested and developed. Things like base isolation came into play in the late 70s and early 80s, and that is now widely adopted. We can base isolate a new building as well as an existing building. A Bonded Restrained Braces (BRB) is a piece of steel placed within a tube that is lubricated and moves during an earthquake and if it gets damaged can easily be replaced. Fiber Reinforced Polymer (FRP) is another technology that can be wrapped around columns, for instance, to reinforce them and add strength to them. We are now using that on walls as well. We are constantly looking for those kinds of innovations.

Q. With your experience on the ground helping cities rebuild after Loma Prieta and Northridge, what are you and your firm doing to help communities to prepare for a future response?

During Loma Prieta, I had the opportunity to work with Laurence Kornfield, who was the Earthquake Response Manager for the Department of Building Inspection in San Francisco. We learned tremendous lessons along the way while assessing the damage to that region and were focused on getting buildings reoccupied and back online. I was fortunate to be involved in that because as a result, the Building Occupancy Resumption Program (BORP) was developed and is in place in San Francisco and cities in the Bay Area. This program is a key element in improving a community’s resilience. It is based on the idea of a city deputizing licensed structural engineers to investigate buildings and develop a plan with owners in advance of an earthquake. Given pre-knowledge of the facility and up-to-date training and documents, the structural engineer can immediately assess the safety of a building. This allows re-occupancy or more quickly beginning repairs, without having to wait for a City Inspector. A Back to Business (B2B) program has many, many benefits to the City and to building owners. The minor cost of B2B is born by the owners, dramatically reduces the time it takes for a building to be put back in operation, and it lessens the demand on the city’s inspectors. Above all, B2B improves the citizens and business owners’ confidence in the City’s disaster response planning.

Q. Is there the same prearrangement with contractors to make needed improvements to a building?

That is another element of a good preparedness program. In past situations, when we saw a building that needed shoring, we called on our colleagues and people we knew to come and help. A business owner should have a contractor in place just as they have an engineering team in place. It’s all about trust, relationships, and favors in a situation like that. Having a plan in place to have someone show up with necessary cables, and other shoring materials is essential. SAFEq™ can help the building owner by providing recommendations and even design of the temporary shoring so that the building can be stabilized more quickly.

Q. What is ahead?

Recently, Lucy Jones presented at the Buildings at Risk: Earthquake Loss Reduction Summit, where she spoke about the ShakeOut earthquake model’s economic impact on Southern California. For a 7.8 quake on the San Andreas fault, the United States Geological Survey estimates damage costs due to actual ground shaking will be doubled by fire, and total costs will be doubled again by business interruption. Shaking damage is 25% of the total cost while Business Interruption is 50%. They anticipate the 7.8 earthquake to cost between $60 – $70 billion dollars. Those are dramatic numbers and we need to be prepared in order to minimize the overall economic impact.

To understand the magnitude difference between what we have experienced to date in Southern California compared to the modeled 7.8 earthquake, Nathan Becker with NOAA/NWS/Pacific Tsunami Warning Center did a YouTube video called “Perspective” which gives a graphic comparison of the energy release of earthquakes around the world. It is fascinating and gives you context to what we are dealing with.

It’s SAFEq’s goal is to help our cities adopt a Back to Business (B2B) program of emergency response and to assist business owners who are looking at their own emergency response systems and processes. It is everyone’s priority to ensure the safety of their employees or tenants and get things back to normal as quickly as possible. We have on-the-ground, first-hand knowledge that we can bring to the table to help cities and business owners prioritize their response, and have a solid system in place that can only be there as a result pre-assessment and planning.


DAVID COCKE, S.E., F.SEI, F.ASCE, F.SEAOC founded Structural Focus, a Southern California-based structural engineering firm, in 2001 after 20 years in the structural engineering business. He is a leader in structural design for all building types with special expertise in historic buildings and film industry structures. David is a recognized expert in building business resiliency and continuity related to earthquake risks and was an on-the-ground responder after the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes. David’s experience with preplanning and minimizing business interruption drove him to co-found SAFEq™ Institute. The SAFEq™ Institute brings together Southern California’s cities and building owners with information, activities, and professional services to minimize business loss.

For more information on this topic and to learn more about B2B, see SAFEq‘s White Paper entitled San Francisco Shows how to Boost Resilience an interview with Laurence Kornfield and David Cocke, S.E.