As California’s fast-growing Inland Empire in eastern Los Angeles County churns out new housing tracts, the city of Redlands is a throwback to an older, more regal era.
The college town is graced by historic mansions, old orange groves and a vintage downtown that stands in deep contrast to the region’s big-box shopping centers and drive-through restaurants. The town center is defined by century-old buildings.
But danger lurks for these brick buildings: As many as 74 in the city are not retrofitted to withstand major earthquakes, putting the public at risk should the bricks start to topple onto sidewalks, cars and pedestrians.
As many as 640 buildings in more than a dozen Inland Empire cities have been marked as dangerous after decades of warnings, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of building and safety records. These cities are far behind coastal regions of California that have retrofitted thousands of buildings after devastating quakes exposed how deadly they can be.
The risks are all the more concerning because the Inland Empire is particularly vulnerable to a major earthquake.
Three of the state’s most dangerous faults — the San Andreas, the San Jacinto and the Cucamonga — intersect in this region east of downtown Los Angeles. The San Andreas alone, an ominous battle line visible from the foothills, is capable of unleashing a devastating magnitude 8 quake.
Any shaking would be amplified by the precarious soil the region is built on — a basin of loose sediment.
The area is uniquely unprepared for a major earthquake in large part because its economy has struggled in ways more affluent coastal California has not. City officials and residents say myriad issues weigh on them and seismic safety rarely tops the list.
Antonio Canul, a longtime restaurant owner in San Bernardino, shrugged off the risks and said there was no point in saving the city from an earthquake when it was already in such economic shambles. In the 34 years that he’s lived in the city, Canul said he’s had more pressing matters to worry about.
“I’m just here to do business, feed people and make a living,” said Canul, whose restaurant is in an old brick building downtown. Then there are the other obstacles: Poor data upkeep. Building chiefs who stick around for only a few years. Little, if any, public pressure. In dozens of interviews and records requests, the Times analysis found a trail of starts and stops by officials in each city to identify and update its lists of old brick buildings. One list dated back 27 years; others were marked by hand or undecipherable.
While Los Angeles, San Francisco and others have charged ahead on retrofitting many types of vulnerable buildings, many here still have not addresses what structural engineers say are the most basic, most dangerous, most unsupported type of building.
California learned the dangers of brick construction when a major earthquake struck Long Beach in 1933, crumbling schools, churches and shops. The quake killed 120 people. These so-called unreinforced masonry buildings are vulnerable because the mortar essentially crumbles apart during shaking, bringing down the roof and walls.
Cities across California now ban this type of construction.