San Diego

UCSD Buildings Pose ‘Serious Risk to Life' if Earthquake Strikes

More than half of UCSD’s buildings are a “serious” or “severe risk to life,” according to an internal seismic safety survey obtained by NBC 7 Investigates.

Reporter Mari Payton and Executive Producer Tom Jones chronicled their investigation of UCSD’s building conditions in the latest episode of INSIGHT - a podcast from NBC 7 Investigates. Listen to the episode below. 

This fall a record number of students entered their classrooms at UC San Diego unaware that some of those buildings could be seriously damaged in an earthquake. 

More than half of UCSD’s buildings -- including the Geisel Library, Jacobs Hall and the Mandell Weiss Theater -- are a “serious” or “severe risk to life,” according to an internal seismic safety survey obtained by NBC 7 Investigates. 

Portions of the Price Center, where thousands of students gather to shop, eat and see movies and lectures, are rated in “very poor condition,” and a high risk of damage or injury. 

An earthquake safety survey was done at all ten University of California campuses.

Inspections at four other campuses -- Merced, Davis, Berkeley, and Riverside -- reveal they too have buildings that are seriously at-risk in an earthquake. UC San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Irvine have yet to disclose their campus survey results.

NBC 7 Investigates, along with journalists at NBC Bay Area and Los Angeles, obtained the survey findings through a request under the California Public Records Act.

At UCSD, the survey started in 2017 and was completed by May 2019. 

The survey reveals that 268 of the 528 building sections surveyed are in “poor condition” with a “serious” risk of injury. An additional 22 buildings are in “very poor condition” with an even higher risk of injury. 

A UCSD spokesperson declined requests for an on-camera interview but said all campus buildings meet state building codes that were in effect when constructed. Some of those buildings are almost 60 years old. 

The campus spokesperson said all buildings at serious risk in an earthquake will be more thoroughly examined in the coming years. (To read UCSD’s full statement, click here.)  

Understanding The Ratings 

The ten UC campuses each hired independent structural engineering firms to rate their buildings on a scale of one to seven.  

Ratings according to the University of California Seismic Safety Policy.

A building rated a one through three is considered in good condition, with a “slight” risk to life in an earthquake. Buildings with a four rating are in fair condition with a “small” risk of injury. 

A five rating is reserved for structures in “poor” condition with a “serious” risk of injury, while a six rating is considered a “high-priority” for correction. Buildings with the worst rating -- a seven -- cannot be occupied until upgraded. 

All of the UC San Diego buildings surveyed are rated three through six. 

NBC 7 shared the survey results with Jorge Meneses, a geotechnical engineer and president of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute in San Diego. 

Menses said he was not surprised by many of the findings since many older buildings across the state are at risk of damage or collapse in an earthquake. That’s in part because older structures were designed and built to less demanding standards, and are more vulnerable to damage as they age. 

“Part of being prepared [for an earthquake] is being aware that a building -- any building -- is designed for a useful life of 50 years,” Menses explained. “If a building is older than 50 years, we are already in trouble.” 

But Meneses also notes that newer buildings constructed to tougher safety standards have still been damaged or collapsed by earthquakes. 

Menses said a building’s age is not the only factor in its ability to withstand a tremblor. He said the way in which the building’s mass is distributed over its footprint can also determine its seismic safety. 

Many San Diegans feel their risk of injury or death from an earthquake is low, given the region’s distance from the San Andreas Fault, Meneses said. 

“But not many people are aware that we have here nearby the Rose Canyon fault capable of producing up to a magnitude 7.5 earthquake,” Meneses said. “This is something that we have to be aware of. Not to be scared of, but to be prepared.” 

The seismic survey found the Geisel Library was in "poor condition" and a "serious" risk to life in the event of an earthquake.

Students on Campus React 

The UCSD campus has grown exponentially since it was established in 1960. The university is now undergoing one of its largest expansions, with an estimated record attendance of approximately 39,000 grad and undergrad students this fall. 

Three days after releasing the survey's findings to NBC 7 Investigates, administrators issued a campus-wide alert on the building conditions

To find out the rating of a building on UC San Diego’s campus, search below or click here.  

An engineering student heading to the Geisel Library to study said he wasn’t surprised that the building was rated poorly by engineers. 

“A lot of infrastructure in the country is very outdated anyway, so I would actually be surprised if it was rated well,” said Reilly Jensen. “My guess would be that if engineers were living in that building, they might have something to say about the building’s safety, and then maybe the standards would be better. But I guess not.” 

Helga Hiim, a visiting sociology graduate student from Norway, said she’s not used to earthquakes and the thought of one makes her nervous. 

“I definitely hope that the university takes [the survey] seriously and prepares the buildings for a potential earthquake.” 

But Dulce Chadiz voiced faith that UCSD administrators will respond appropriately to the survey findings. 

“We're here to study in a safe environment,” Chadiz said. “Eventually, if it is a serious problem, the university will take action.” 

UCSD Response To The Survey 

Christine Clark, a UCSD spokesperson told NBC 7 Investigates that the university will conduct a more detailed analysis of the 268 structures rated in poor condition. That study could be completed by 2024. At that time, the spokesperson expects that the risk level of some of the buildings will be downgraded upon closer inspection, and a priority list will be developed for upgrading the vulnerable structures. 

Clark said UCSD will upgrade or vacate all buildings with “significant seismic performance deficiencies” by 2030. 

No cost estimate for repairs is available. 

“UC San Diego, along with other campuses in the UC system, is working with the Office of the President to explore sources of funding to help with the significant work required,” said Clark. “While the complex task of enhancing the seismic safety of buildings across campus requires significant financial investment, it is consistent with UC San Diego’s well-established history of taking an active role in safely protecting everyone’s health, and the environment.” 

But Meneses of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute said those improvements should not be delayed. 

“The sooner the better is the rule,” he said. 

Thursday, October 17 marks the 30-year anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake, which rocked the San Francisco region, killing 63 people, injuring thousands, and causing more than $6 billion in damage. Some of those deaths were caused by the collapse of the Oakland Bay Bridge and other freeways. 

That devastation prompted UCSD’s Powell Structural Systems Laboratory to lead the way in developing retrofitting methods for bridges across California. 

In 1994 following the Northridge earthquake, UCSD expanded its engineering space and opened the “Structural Components Laboratory” to test methods for retrofitting existing buildings and building safer steel structures. 

Ironically, UCSD’s seismic safety survey rates both the Powell Structural Systems Laboratory and the Structural Components Laboratory in “poor condition” and at serious risk of injury if an earthquake strikes.

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