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 Member Update
AFTER 50 YEARS, SAN FERNANDO EARTHQUAKE STILL PROVIDES LESSONS Important Webinar Examines the Social and Economic Benefits of Resilience
By Ali Sahabi, Chief Operating Officer, Optimum Seismic
Sign up for our webinar series or view past discussions at:
Half a century ago – on February 9, 1971 – a 6.6-magnitude earthquake rattled the San Fernando Valley, killing 65, injuring 2,500, and causing $505 million in damage ($3.2 billion in today’s dollars). Forty-seven people perished at one site alone when the San Fernando Veteran’s Hospital crumbled into a heap of rubble. Another nearby hospital, newly built, was pulverized.
Several freeway interchanges collapsed at least partially, and both the Upper and Lower Van Norman dams were severely damaged – the lower one came very close to breaching. Some 80,000 people were evacuated for four days while the water level in the reservoir was lowered.
What would have happened if the dam had collapsed on that day 50 years ago? A UCLA study determined that between 71,600 and 123,400 people would have died.
It’s impossible to fathom how that kind of loss would have impacted the future of the valley. Thankfully, a new dam built to replace the Lower Van Norman survived the Northridge earthquake 23 years later.
Why? The faulty structure was thoroughly analyzed to determine what caused the failure, and this led to newer and significantly safer designs. The same has happened for schools, hospitals, freeway overpasses and bridges, and several types of buildings severely damaged in earthquakes of the past. Many faulty public facilities and infrastructure have been replaced or upgraded with retrofits. But an estimated 90 percent of buildings in California’s urban areas are still out of compliance with modern building codes. That translates to thousands of privately owned buildings at risk of significant damage in a major earthquake.

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