Maffei: San Jose homeowners should prioritize earthquake safety with seismic retrofits
The home on the left slid off its foundation during an earthquake, while the home on the right did not due to seismic retrofitting. Photo courtesy of the California Earthquake Authority.

California’s towering peaks and deep valleys are a part of its remarkable scenery and help define the Golden State’s identity. These same geological features, created over millennia of seismic activity, are a prominent reminder the ground can and will abruptly shift, resulting in small tremors and immense earthquakes.

Much of the Bay Area is at particular risk. According to the California Earthquake Authority, San Jose and the nearby surrounding area are at the intersection of several major earthquake faults—the San Andreas, Calaveras and Hayward faults. These grinding plates heighten San Jose’s earthquake risks. In the San Francisco Bay region, San Jose and the surrounding area are considered one of the fastest creeping.

Given this reality, earthquake preparedness should be a high priority for ensuring the safety and security of families and communities. This year, a New Year’s resolution for every resident should be to retrofit homes for dangerous and costly earthquakes.

Earthquakes not only present risks to public safety, they’re also high-cost events. According to a report earlier this year from the U.S. Geological Survey and Federal Emergency Management Agency, earthquakes could cost California an average of $9.6 billion annually from damage—157% more than the 2017 estimate.

Damage caused by earthquakes is partly due to about 1.2 million homes in high-risk areas being built before the introduction of modern safety standards in 1980. Homes that are not properly braced and bolted to their foundations are at greater risk of collapsing or sliding off their bases during intense seismic activity.

In the Bay Area, a basic retrofit that securely bolts a home to its foundation can significantly reduce the risk of catastrophic damage.

From Jan. 10 to Feb. 21, registration will be open for the California Residential Mitigation Program’s Earthquake Brace + Bolt grant. Eligible Bay Area homeowners can apply for grants of up to $3,000, aiding in the retrofitting of their homes against earthquakes. In addition, the Earthquake Brace + Bolt program is offering supplemental grants to help income-eligible households—defined as a household with an annual income at or below $87,360—pay up to 100% of the cost to seismically retrofit their homes.

Originating in Oakland in 2014, the Earthquake Brace + Bolt program marks its 10th anniversary this year. The program has granted funds to more than 23,000 California homeowners to help mitigate earthquake damage. This year, the program has expanded by nearly one-third to encompass 815 ZIP codes statewide. The grant period starts Jan. 10 and runs through Feb. 21. Grantees will be chosen through random selection and notified via email if they are selected.

While most earthquakes are common and minor, history has shown that devastating earthquakes do occur. For instance, the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake during the 1989 World Series claimed 63 lives, injured thousands and caused more than $5.9 billion in damage. Just four years later, the 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake rocked Southern California, displacing roughly 22,000 people and inflicting $20 billion in damage, equal to $35 billion in today’s dollars.

According to data on the California Earthquake Authority website, there’s a 99% chance a major earthquake will strike California within the next 30 years—roughly the same amount of time as the typical mortgage. These events and data underscore the unpredictable severity and uncertainty of earthquakes.

Entering the new year, San Jose and Bay Area residents should prioritize earthquake retrofitting as a must-do resolution. With the Earthquake Brace + Bolt program’s support, homeowners have a golden opportunity to strengthen their homes against seismic threats.

Let’s make 2024 the year to turn vulnerability into resilience, safeguarding our homes, families and communities.

Janiele Maffei is chief mitigation officer of the California Earthquake Authority, one of the largest providers of residential earthquake insurance. She manages the California Residential Mitigation Program and Earthquake Brace + Bolt program.

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