How would Cal State LA handle the next big quake?

Will Baker

According to, being prepared for an earthquake requires the ability to react and remain calm to protect yourself and those around you. For anyone using a walker, or wheelchair, it is suggested to lock your brakes, cover your neck and head with your arms, and to hold on. Graphic by Will Baker.

After the recent earthquake in Turkey and Syria claimed tens of thousands of lives, some students may be reminded of experts’ predictions that “The Big One” will hit Southern California any day now.

Although Cal State LA is not located directly on an active fault line, its campus is less than two miles from the Upper Elysian Park Fault, which could trigger a sizable earthquake if activated.

So, how would Cal State LA’s campus hold up?

Tonatiuh Rodriguez-Nikl is an associate professor of civil engineering in structural engineering at Cal State LA.

Rodriguez-Nikl listed two primary concepts for ensuring a building’s resistance to earthquakes are “continuity” and “ductility.”

Continuity means “you want all the pieces to be tied together,” Rodriguez-Nikl said about building construction. “You can think of it as a chain and if any link breaks, the whole chain breaks. So you want all of your links in your chain to be connected.”

“The second aspect that we design for is what we call ductility,” Rodriguez-Nikl said, describing the differences in the durability of a paperclip being bent versus a piece of spaghetti. “It’s ‘how much can something get damaged without actually breaking?”

Many buildings on campus, like King Hall and John F. Kennedy Memorial Library, were built in the 1960s, and some before that, making them products of a different era of construction practices.

“The buildings you’re in today aren’t designed by today’s standards,” Rodriguez-Nikl said. “They’re designed [to] the standards of decades ago when we knew less of the earthquakes we might have in the region; when we knew less about how to design a building properly.”

But there have been retrofitting ordinances in Los Angeles County that aim to ensure buildings like the ones on campus are equipped for earthquakes.

“The nice thing about campus buildings is that, since they’re state-owned buildings, there’s a little bit more of a legal requirement to get them fixed up,” Rodriguez-Nikl said. “So without looking into details, my expectations would be that they’ve all been evaluated and retrofit accordingly.”

Most of the time, a new build and a retrofitted older building have a similar level of safety, according to Rodriguez-Nikl.

Even if retrofitted, “I still get a bit queasy if I go into a masonry building,” Rodriguez-Nikl said, but “for other kinds of retrofits, you can pretty much get things up to present-day standard.”

“For instance,” Rodriguez-Nikl said, “for the wood retrofit, they’ll put in a strong steel frame, strengthen the foundation, tie that into the existing building – it really is as good as new.”

New and old buildings at Cal State LA are included in annual earthquake safety drills.

An email from Cal State LA’s Office of Public Affairs and Communications said the university “conducts campus-wide emergency preparedness and evacuation drills, including a test of our emergency notification system, to enhance emergency preparedness for the entire campus community.”

“I have not experienced any earthquake drills on Cal State LA’s campus, as they usually happen on days when I’m not on campus,” said Steven Tan, a Television, Film and Media Studies major. “I think it would be better if the school had multiple drills throughout the day over the course of a week, that way all students can take part and understand what to do in the event of one.”

California State University has its own building protocols in place to address seismic activity on campuses and an action plan also exists for the aftermath of such an event.

The action plan details the use of its Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), which the document describes as “a team of Cal State LA staff, students and faculty trained and equipped to provide the University with disaster assistance in the form of search and rescue, triage, first aid and CPR.”

CERT is led by the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) director or the operations section chief.

Rodriguez-Nikl said if it was possible to choose a campus location to be at during a quake, a newer building might be ideal, but he “would feel confident being anywhere.”

“Or, heck,” Rodriguez-Nikl said, “I’d really rather be out in the San Gabriel Mountains, right? Far away from anything. There’s actually a saying that ‘earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings kill people.’”

For more information about earthquake safety on campus, visit the university’s Earthquake Preparedness webpage.