Campus members reflect on earthquake preparedness at UC Berkeley

Infographic depicting UC Berkeley, City of Berkeley seismic safety distinctions for buildings, and Berkeley buildings with unreinforced masonry
Flora Huynh/Staff

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Following the collapse of a condominium building in Florida, members of the UC Berkeley community took the time to reflect on existing building regulations and the campus’s overall earthquake preparedness.

The destruction, which occurred June 24, may have been caused by excessive weight on the building’s columns, causing the tower to lean, according to Khalid Mosalam, campus professor of structural engineering. Mosalam added that the building was 40 years old and followed older building code provisions, which may have increased the likelihood of a collapse.

“(A)bnormal loading like major earthquakes can cause these collapses if designs are not considering collapse prevention provisions…” Mosalam said in an email. “Unfortunately, aging infrastructure is always a problem as materials deteriorate over the years and we at least need good monitoring systems.”

Mosalam noted that a disaster such as the one in Florida would be rare in Berkeley with regards to modern building codes. Despite this, an earthquake could still increase the chances of a building collapsing. Mosalam emphasized the importance of consistently monitoring older buildings to better prepare for unexpected events such as the collapse in Florida.

Alicia Johnson, director of campus’s Office of Emergency Management, added that earthquake safety is considered a “pillar” of emergency preparedness. She said the university regularly participates in earthquake drills and works with campus groups to monitor infrastructure and to prepare for emergencies.

“The collapse in Florida was tragic,” Johnson said in an email. “Our hearts go out to all those directly and indirectly impacted by the disaster. We recognize the importance of infrastructure safety on our campus and continue to engage with (the UC Office of the President) and others to facilitate state-of-the-art guidelines and seismic policies.”

Kyle Gibson, director of communications at campus Capital Strategies, said in an email that building codes and seismic policy are implemented by the UC Office of the President.

After the first university seismic policy was established in 1975, UC Berkeley focused on upgrading residence hall complexes, libraries, athletic facilities and academic buildings to improve seismic safety, according to Gibson. He noted that Giannini Hall on campus has undergone a seismic improvement project that ended in 2020, adding new walls and footings to the building.

Over time, campus has invested more than $1 billion in seismic improvement projects, Gibson said. He added that building regulations have continued to be monitored across the university system-wide during the pandemic.

“While there’s a perception that everything’s been sitting vacant and dusty, in fact our essential workers have been here, every day, working fully in compliance with health directives to bring back a campus that’s as good and better than you remember,” Gibson said in an email.

Contact Amudha Sairam at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AmudhaSairam.