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California still preparing for big quake

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The devastating earthquake in Japan has served as a painful reminder of the fact that California has struggled on a number of fronts to protect the state from the next big one, namely when it comes to bolstering at-risk buildings.

California's 5-year-old program for helping cash-strapped public schools seismically retrofit their most vulnerable buildings has so far disbursed only a tiny portion of the $200 million set aside for it. The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, damaged in the 1989 earthquake, still hasn't been replaced. Thousands of old hospitals and apartment buildings remain despite being at serious risk in a quake.

"Everybody owns risk if you live in earthquake country," said David Bonowitz, a structural engineer. "And individuals have to be responsible for their own risks just like public policymakers and city officials have their own responsibilities."

Since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco Bay area and the 1994 Northridge temblor near Los Angeles, billions of dollars have been spent on retrofitting thousands of unreinforced brick buildings, roads, bridges and university buildings.

Still, experts say thousands of potentially dangerous school buildings, high-rises and hospitals that were built before California changed its building code in 1976 have not even been identified. The especially vulnerable buildings were made with "non-ductile" concrete, which was used in older structures and did not hold up well after the recent New Zealand quake.

Craig Comartin, a former president of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, said the state has 25,000 to 30,000 non-ductile concrete buildings.

Bonowitz said the main mistake planners have made in the state's approach to preparedness is thinking everything can be addressed before the next disaster.

Earthquake safety experts now realize the focus should be on shoring up structures that will help a community rebound quickly -- hospitals, large apartment buildings and schools.

Meanwhile, $7.2 billion will be spent to replace the Bay Bridge, which is scheduled to be opened to traffic by the end of 2013.

But California has still not met its preparedness goals for school buildings. The state has identified dozens of school buildings it believes are in danger of collapse in a strong quake, but most continue to be used with no plans of retrofitting, according to documents and interviews.

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