More than 600 hundred brick buildings in the Inland Empire are unretrofitted and at risk of collapse during a major earthquake, despite decades of warning, a Times analysis has found

By Rosanna Xia, Rong-Gong Lin II and Raoul Rañoa
Feb 09, 2018 | 8:35 AM

In a fast-growing Inland Empire churning out new housing tracts, the city of Redlands is a throwback to an older, more regal era.

The college town is graced by historic mansions, old orange groves and a vintage downtown that stands in deep contrast to the region’s big-box shopping centers and drive-through eateries. The town center is defined by century-old buildings filled with children’s boutiques, bakeries and cafes serving gourmet waffle sandwiches out of brick-lined alleys.

But danger lurks amid the idyllic charm of these brick buildings: As many as 74 in the city are not retrofitted to withstand a major earthquake, putting the public at risk should the bricks start to topple onto sidewalks, cars and pedestrians.

As many as 640 buildings in more than a dozen Inland Empire cities, including Riverside, Pomona and San Bernardino, have been marked as dangerous — but remain unretrofitted despite decades of warnings, according to a Times analysis of the latest building and safety records. These cities are far behind coastal regions of California, which have retrofitted thousands of buildings after devastating earthquakes exposed how deadly they can be.

The risks are all the more concerning because the Inland Empire is particularly vulnerable to a major earthquake.

Three of the state’s most dangerous faults — the San Andreas, the San Jacinto and the Cucamonga — intersect in this region east of downtown Los Angeles. The San Andreas alone, an ominous battle ine visible from the foothills, is capable of unleashing a devastating magnitude 8.

Any shaking would be amplified by the precarious soil the region is built on — a basin of loose sediment that would rock like a bowl of Jell-O.

The Inland Empire is uniquely unprepared for a major earthquake, in large part because its economy has struggled in ways more-affluent coastal California has not. City officials and residents say myriad issues weigh on their day-to-days and seismic safety rarely tops the list.

Antonio Canul, a longtime restaurant owner in San Bernardino, shrugged off the risks and said there was no point in saving the city from an earthquake when it was already in such economic shambles. In the 34 years that he’s lived in the city, Canul said, he’s had more pressing matters to worry about.

“I’m just here to do business, feed people and make a living,” said Canul, who cooks, cleans and serves each day, starting at 6 a.m. in an old brick building downtown. “If you’re gonna die, you’re gonna die. Maybe it’s cancer, maybe it’s an earthquake.”

Then there are the other obstacles: Poor data upkeep. Building chiefs who stick around for only a few years. Little, if any, public pressure. In dozens of interviews and records requests, The Times found a trail of starts and stops by officials in each city to identify and update lists of old brick buildings. One list dated back 27 years; others were marked by hand or indecipherable.

While Los Angeles, San Francisco and others have charged ahead on retrofitting many types of vulnerable buildings, many here still have not tackled what structural engineers say is the most basic, most dangerous, most unsupported type of building.

California learned the dangers of brick construction when a major earthquake struck Long Beach in 1933, crumbling schools, churches and shops. Some 120 people died. These so-called unreinforced masonry buildings, or URMs, are vulnerable because the mortar essentially crumbles apart during shaking, bringing down the roof and walls.

In-depth graphic: Why old brick buildings can collapse, and how they can be retrofitted »

Cities across California now ban this type of construction. URMs that had already been built were mostly left to fate. But as its history of destruction continued — Sylmar in 1971, Loma Prieta in 1989 — a number of cities found the political will to compile a list of addresses and force owners to either demolish or add reinforcement to their brick buildings.

When a magnitude 6.5 earthquake in 2003 struck downtown Paso Robles, the two people who died were found crushed under an avalanche of bricks outside an unretrofitted historic building. The roof had slid onto the sidewalk, taking the clock tower with it. (The city, which had a retrofit law on the books, had given the owner until 2018 to complete the seismic strengthening.)

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