Twenty-five years ago Northridge was hit by a magnitude 6.7 earthquake, killing 57 people, causing more than $20 billion in damage, wrecking homes and apartments. Ghost towns replaced once thriving neighborhoods, because many people couldn’t afford to rebuild, and businesses were forced to close.
We know it will happen again. Scientists say there is more than a 99% chance of another magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake striking somewhere in California within the next 30 years.
To make matters worse, 83% of Californians live in areas that are considered high seismic risk zones and are squarely in harm’s way.
Seismic codes for our homes were adopted statewide in 1980. The majority of our housing was built before then and is more vulnerable to serious damage in an earthquake.
The question is: What are we doing to prepare?
Sen. Bob Hertzberg, who district was hit hard by the Northridge earthquake, has introduced the Resilient Homes Initiative, Senate Bill 254. It would authorize the California Earthquake Authority to invest $75 million a year in retrofitting vulnerable homes.
As state treasurer, I serve on the California Earthquake Authority’s governing board. Recognizing the urgent need for this legislation, the board voted to sponsor this bill, and I am committed to working with the Legislature to make sure it is enacted.
The California Earthquake Authority is unique. It’s a not-for-profit insurance company with a public mission. We have a unique opportunity to increase residential resilience by tapping into the financial strength of the earthquake authority, which is entirely privately funded.
The earthquake authority is able to retrofit about 2,000 homes a year through its Earthquake Brace + Bolt program. SB 254 bill would allow the authority to increase the number of retrofits to 25,000 per year, an unprecedented commitment to increasing our residential resilience.
The legislation would allow the earthquake authority to lower its reinsurance costs (that is, the insurance that insurance companies purchase to help cover future losses) and spend the resulting savings on retrofitting homes.
In the event of an unprecedented earthquake—one far more damaging than a recurrence of either the 1994 Northridge or 1906 San Francisco disasters—a privately funded financial backstop would kick in to bolster the California Earthquake Authority’s ability to pay claims.
This backstop would save the authority about $70 million each year in reinsurance costs. That savings would be invested in retrofitting homes.
The earthquake authority would undertake the largest residential retrofit program that California, and perhaps the world, has ever seen, in exchange for the creation of a privately funded financial backstop.
And while the probability of the backstop ever being needed is less than one-half of 1%—there would be 100% certainty that our neighborhoods would become more resilient.
In retrospect, we should have endeavored to strengthen more of our homes a quarter of a century ago. But we have the knowledge, resources and resolve to act now, before it is too late. I urge the Legislature to quickly pass the Resilient Homes Initiative.
Fiona Ma is California’s 34th state treasurer, Fiona.firstname.lastname@example.org. She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.