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Estimating Quake Damage a Shaky Science

July 21, 1986

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Federal and state agencies are often skeptical of earthquake damage estimates submitted by local officials who are tallying monetary losses in an effort to attract government funds.

Damage estimates in the first days following a quake are frequently off by millions of dollars and local officials admit the figures are meant to ″get the ball rolling″ with government agencies.

Five hours after the ground stopped shaking July 8 in Palm Springs, damage was estimated at $2 million. It rose a day later to $4 million, then to $5.8 million a week after the quake and finally to $7.5 million on Thursday.

The $7.5 million figure was sent to the state in Riverside County’s application for earthquake assistance.

″At best it’s a guess. There’s no magic formula,″ said Ed Gaines, a Riverside County building inspector who surveyed damaged homes after the Palm Springs quake.

Charlotee Button, coordinator of the state Office of Emergency Services, said local government ″is often expeditious ... to get the requested assessment.″

Local officials will often use earthquake damage to get funding to demolish aging structures, such as buildings or bridges, and build other ones. A Whitewater River Bridge crossing in the Palm Springs area is an example.

Riverside County Road Department officials said the 63-year-old bridge would have to be demolished and replaced at a cost of $880,000. The California Department of Transportation said it could be fixed for under $150,000.

After the 1971 Sylmar quake, officials initially estimated damage at more than $1 billion. It was later cut to $500 million.

Sometimes, however, there are underestimates.

In the 1983 Coalinga quake, for instance, damage to the local high school was intitially assessed at $100,000. It was months later that officials discovered the quake had done $800,000 in damage to the school’s plumbing and electrical systems.

Because of the discrepancies, state and federal investigators often do their own damage reports before doling out funds.

Chuck Moorman, an instructor with the California Specialized Training Institute, who teaches how to evaluate damage from a natural disaster, said local officials have to be prepared for intense scrutiny.

″If you think an IRS audit is tough, that’s child’s play compared to what they put you through,″ he said.

Many businesses and city officials in the Palm Springs and Desert Hot Springs tourist areas, 110 miles east of Los Angeles, were reluctant to report any damage, fearing it would scare off visitors, officials said.

″It’s the American way to pick yourself up,″ said Michael Burton, assistant director of the Riverside County Department of Emergency Services. ″It’s hard to get many people to come forth if there is no loss of life.″

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