Former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who was just confirmed as the next ambassador to India, talks with Temblor about resilience, the importance of neighborhoods and his love of earthquakes.
By Megan Sever, TEN Editor in Chief and News Director
Citation: Sever, M., 2023, Los Angeles mayor, now ambassador, talks earthquake resilience, Temblor, http://doi.org/10.32858/temblor.304
On March 24, 2023, former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was sworn in as the U.S. ambassador to India. Garcetti led America’s second-largest city for two terms, from 2013 to 2022. As he and his family leave the beaches of LA for the hustle and bustle of New Delhi, India, Garcetti leaves behind a city that’s more resilient than it was a few years ago.
Garcetti, a born-and-raised Angeleno, is proud of the work his team has done in preparing the 4 million inhabitants of Los Angeles for when the next earthquake strikes.
Last spring, Garcetti and I sat down to talk about earthquake safety in Los Angeles, the city’s resilience plans, the importance of neighborhoods, and his love of feeling the earth shake — at least lightly.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Megan Sever (MS): It seems like resilience planning has been a big part of your work as mayor since the beginning. Can you tell me about the 100 Resilient Cities Initiative and how LA fits into that movement?
Eric Garcetti (EG): We were very excited to be one of those first 100 cities when the Rockefeller Foundation looked at inaugurating a program that would not only build on the idea of resilience when that was new, but also network cities around the world. I always feel like the local level is the most frictionless. You don’t have to wade through bureaucracies to level things up and you don’t have to wait for national governments to approve. You can actually get a lot done.
So I was really thankful for the resources they gave to us. It allowed us to plug into an incredible network and to be able to establish our own stakeholder process that was really diverse, with community members, experts, academics, the business community and others.
MS: What was the program’s focus?
EG: Climate change has been an area of my focus for two decades. But when I came in as mayor, I also wanted to be a mayor who wasn’t going to wait for the earthquake to come. I wasn’t going to change the rules, regulations, plans, after the next big one hit. So the fact that “resilience” was this new language for bringing together all sorts of things we have to adapt to and mitigate for really was quite welcome. It gave us a single language [to use to] talk [about hazards] across the board. It even prepared us, in some strange way, for the pandemic and talking to people about what resilience means for a city.
One of the first meetings I took was with Dr. Lucy Jones to speak about earthquakes. We sat down and I said, “She is singing music that I want to hear. I wonder if we could convince her and her bosses — the federal government — to detail her to City Hall physically to look at how we could get an in-house expert.” We wanted the brawn of the city and the brain of Dr. Jones to put together something historic.
MS: It was about a year later, in 2015, that you signed a Los Angeles City Ordinance that required retrofitting of concrete buildings built before 1980 and multistory wood-framed buildings with an open ground floor (called a soft story). Was that related to the Rockefeller resiliency planning?
EG: It was sort of parallel tracks that came together. We started talking about having our first chief resilience officer in the city. With Dr. Jones, we published the “Resilience by Design” report, which I’m really proud of.
Editor’s Note: The “Resilience by Design” report focuses on fortifying three major sectors of earthquake resiliency: buildings, water systems and telecommunications networks. It provides multiple action steps that will protect residents and improve the city’s capacity to respond to earthquakes. The action steps “are designed to be best-in-class and achievable,” Garcetti wrote in the foreword. “It’s designed so that government, property owners, and commercial and residential tenants can come together to strengthen Los Angeles against a known and major threat to life, property and our economy,” he wrote.
EG: The ordinance itself was about earthquake retrofitting. It came out of the idea of trying to change the formula — to plan ahead [instead of reacting after the fact]. … We live with earthquakes here in LA. When I was given the steering wheel of the vehicle at City Hall, I decided it was time to drive down a smarter road than we had been.
MS: Tell me about the results of that 2015 ordinance. What have we seen in terms of resiliency building and retrofitting?
EG: The ordinance was specifically about our building codes. We looked at two different areas. First, soft-story retrofits — the average apartment buildings in Los Angeles that have carports under them. We mandated that those had to be retrofitted to be able to withstand stronger earthquakes. Second, we looked at our nonductile [concrete] buildings, which we knew would be more expensive, but just as important. We mandated that they too are either retrofitted or rebuilt.
We’ve seen huge progress in terms of compliance with retrofit ordinances, especially soft story. For nonductile concrete buildings, it’s easier and cheaper to do when owners are already doing renovations. We changed codes to require higher building standards, require the seismic gas shutoff valve [be installed], prohibit dangerous or wasteful practices, like new gas hookups, and levy fines where needed, like [when there is] a lack of defensible space in fire-prone areas. Over 12,000 buildings have been identified as needing retrofitting, and we’re over half done. [As of March 2023, 69 percent have been retrofitted].
MS: Who pays for these retrofits?
EG: That was part of the stakeholder process. It would’ve been very easy to say, “Just figure this out or pass it through to the tenants. Sorry if that means you can’t pay the rent.” We figured out a way for that to be shared. Half would be paid by owners, half by renters, and they could finance it over time. In some cases, there’s also been state assistance. We thought it was fair to share [the cost] because this isn’t just an issue of protecting lives, it’s also an issue of preserving affordable housing in a city that badly needs it. We didn’t want a situation where even if an earthquake didn’t take people’s lives, it took their homes. This was about jobs and investment.
MS: Which types of buildings does this ordinance target? Large apartment complexes owned by big developers?
EG: Most are mom and pop owners. This [ordinance] was for those in-between [sized] buildings. They couldn’t afford [the retrofits on their own]. Neither could the renter. This was for the in-between space. We already had rules in place for individual homes and larger apartment buildings, so I think now we’ve covered everything from single family all the way up through multifamily housing with pretty strong standards. All that’s left now is seeing through the nonductile retrofitting, which is predominantly office buildings, and then of course the skyscrapers, which have some vulnerabilities.
MS: Who is certifying that the retrofits are done appropriately?
EG: The Department of Building and Safety does that. They already have a team of inspectors, so they added that to their expertise toolbox.
MS: Let’s talk about ShakeAlert, which rolled out during your tenure in LA. What was your role with that and what’s been your experience with the program?
EG: We were the first city in the U.S. to do this and inspired the state to follow suit. We worked with our federal partners to have the sensors in place and lead the effort. We contracted with the tech scripters who made the app and then publicized it — that was in 2018.
There are two different classes of people who want to know about any shaking. There’s the first class that wants to be able to know about any shaking, no matter what size. Then there’s the second class of people who just want to know if it’s going to be something big. We had to consider that second group, who might panic upon receiving any alert. We wanted to make sure alerts were being issued for real emergencies.
So we brought [the magnitude at which an alert is triggered] to magnitude 4.5 for the app users. That was tested in LA, where we had something like a million downloads for the app in the first year. Now it’s [morphed] into MyShake and it’s West-Coast-wide.
MS: What kind of lessons have you learned from programs like the Great ShakeOut in terms of resilience planning, like with pipelines and aqueducts crossing faults and telecommunications networks?
EG: [The Great ShakeOut] really gave us a good roadmap to do things comprehensively, from telecoms to the infrastructure to the human needs we have, as well. … [For example,] when we looked at how many times the California Aqueduct crosses the San Andreas Fault — 32 times — we knew we had to change it. So we’re changing at least where the LA Aqueduct, which we control, goes over the San Andreas Fault. We’re building a different tunnel that will be able to adapt and hopefully keep the water flowing [in the event of a big earthquake].
We mandated that major cellphone companies share bandwidth immediately [in the event of an earthquake]. So if you’re an AT&T customer and their tower goes down, you can immediately start using Verizon bandwidth. That was really critical because we saw just how overwhelmed the networks can become in an emergency, even with just texts.
MS: What can you tell me about RYLAN — the Ready Your LA Neighborhood program?
EG: I’m really proud of the program. It’s very analog. So much of the [resilience] work we do isn’t about building codes and infrastructure. It’s about knowing each other. And in a world that increasingly seems to be separating from each other, I think it’s really important to emphasize that connection. RYLAN helps us know where seniors live, [as well as] people with disabilities, so we can be our own first responders. We want to be able to look after our elderly residents, our children, our pets, people who have disabilities, and also map out the assets of the neighborhood. Learn who in your neighborhood has a generator or a chainsaw, who’s a nurse, who might have extra water. It brings everybody together. People say they love it because it’s probably the best block party ever.
We don’t necessarily need to learn radically new things about how to respond to an earthquake. We need to know our neighbors — plus basic disaster tips. It’s a part of the culture not owned by the City of LA government. It’s owned by the people.
MS: I know you’ve also been concerned about equity and resilience. Can you say more on that?
EG: It’s really important to look at equity because some of the places that can best afford to be safest are the ones with more resources. But smaller cities, often with larger communities of color, lower incomes… sometimes these ordinances aren’t getting passed there because people say, “How are we going to afford them?” Whether it’s federal help, state help, or figuring out financing mechanisms, we need to make sure that earthquake safety and resilience aren’t just something that protects the well-off communities and punishes those that are less well off.
MS: Have you ever experienced an earthquake?
EG: I was born just before the 1971 [San Fernando] quake. My mom used to joke that “you were born and then an earthquake followed,” so that’s definitely something that was in our consciousness growing up. The most distinct one I remember was the Whittier quake in ’87. It was a magnitude 5.9 that caused about a quarter to a third of a billion dollars in damage. I missed the ’94 [Northridge] earthquake by a day — I was in grad school at the time. I came back and was astounded [at the destruction].
I love earthquakes when they’re not big! It’s kind of a cool thing to feel the geology underfoot. It’s a reminder of how small we are. I’ve never lived in fear of earthquakes. I’ve lived trying to be prepared for a big one. But any morning I can feel a little temblor, it’s kind of a cool SoCal experience.
From a scientific perspective, earthquakes are amazing. They bring out the child in all of us — that sense of wonder.
MS: What’s next for LA? What do you hope to see going forward?
EG: There’s two things that I hope are the legacy of the last decade. One is the idea of resilience — that people understand it. Second, it’s not just understanding of a concept, but it’s about actionable items. And that list will never end because there’s always someone new being born, or a new neighbor moving in, who needs to be trained on earthquake preparedness.
I think we learned a lot in the last couple years. The COVID-19 recovery has taken much longer than we expect to recover from an earthquake, but it’s still offered resilience lessons — how we kept each other fed, kept people employed, got around the red tape to become a representative City Hall helping human beings fulfill their needs instead of being a government enforcing a bunch of regulations. To me, that’s what resilience is. Flexibility as much as knowledge. Caring as much as toughness.
I hope the legacy is that you don’t need to be a mayor who waits for something bad to happen to do something about it.
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