But the article also serves to educate readers to a reality that is sometimes ignored in revelatory journalism: Even in potentially deadly situations, costs and benefits must be weighed. Governments do not have infinite amounts of money; elected officials who heap huge costs onto property owners without a truly compelling reason can quickly find themselves unelected. Requiring all older concrete buildings in Los Angeles (and, for that matter, other seismically active areas in California) to be retrofitted with additional bracing would be enormously expensive. Just the engineering study to determine whether retrofitting is needed could, the Times noted, cost tens of thousands of dollars for a single building. Mistakenly identifying a building as a hazard could mean a substantial legal judgment against the city—costing money that could have been devoted to public services.
At the same time, there’s the point made by Councilman Bernard Parks, and reported by the Times: “The greatest liability is to know—and do nothing.”
Garcetti’s response to the Times’ work in bringing the concrete-building problem to light seems a reasonable, if cautious, one: He is talking to earthquake experts, assigning lawyers to examine the legalities of the situation, and looking into the possibility of getting some kind of state assistance, perhaps in the form of a statewide loan program, for concrete building retrofits. “We won’t turn things around in a day,” the mayor told the Times.
But the government’s wheels are at least starting to turn. There’s a chance now that a dangerous hazard will be addressed—and that lives will be spared the next time a major earthquake hits. And it is clear that the Los Angeles Times’ enterprising journalism gave the push needed to get the policy process rolling.
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