Next California's Big One could kill hundreds, cause $100 billion in losses, trap 20,000 in elevators

To drill down on those lessons, the project team drew from a wide range of information, including diverse computer simulations, industry data and surveys of California residents. The researchers will release their findings in three volumes. The first came out last year and USGS recently published the second onlineCU Boulder is a coalition partner on the project. Porter coordinated the engineering analyses for this report and performed many of them himself.

Porter’s expertise hones in on the long-lasting consequences for buildings and other infrastructure. He said that while California has adopted a stringent building code, these rules focus on getting people out of buildings alive, not necessarily on making them safe for people to go back into.

Under the current building code, an earthquake like the HayWired disaster could render one-quarter of buildings in the Bay Area unsafe for people to re-enter or otherwise limit their usability, he said. The earthquake could spark 450 large fires and cause 4,300 pipe breaks and leaks in the East Bay Municipal Utility District. 

But, Porter added, that there’s another impact of earthquakes that often gets ignored. Drawing on data from the elevator industry, Porter estimates that the hypothetical disaster could strand roughly 20,000 people in elevators across northern California.

“That’s a big deal because electricity might not come back on in parts of the Bay Area for days or more after an earthquake,” Porter said. “Imagine 20,000 people trapped in a metal box for days. That’s pretty scary.”

Still, Porter said that many of the scary numbers that he and his colleagues reported could be addressed with relatively small investments. For a 1 percent increase in construction costs, for example, new buildings could be made 50 percent stronger.

“Big earthquakes are inevitable in California,” Porter said. “There will be some very serious losses in that kind of earthquake, but some of those losses can be avoided by thinking prudently in advance.”

Porter’s comments are timely as the California State Legislature is currently considering Assembly Bill 1857. This bill would establish a commission that would evaluate making the state’s building code even tougher, potentially ensuring the survival of more buildings after a natural disaster.