A fault-finding mission

Los Angeles Times series seeks to make sure towers aren't built along earthquake faults

SANTA BARBARA, CA — When it comes to public service, journalists do some of their best work when focused on the here and now. They expose abuse of wealth and power in action, so it might be stopped by sunlight and embarrassment. They describe exploitation of the less privileged in immediate detail, hoping that society will be moved to provide help. They bear witness to war, terrorism, and natural disaster, believing that such witness can help minimize death and suffering.

But there is another important variety of public service journalism, one that deals less with recounting current problems and more with averting future dangers. It is sometimes called “preventive journalism,” a term used fairly regularly by Charlie Peters, founder of The Washington Monthly. In his conception, preventive reporting “identifies inept leaders, wrong-headed policies, and bureaucratic bungling before they lead to disasters like the bad intelligence about WMDs and the travesty that was the response to [Hurricane] Katrina.” This kind of journalism protects the public from potential and emerging threats. It tries to see monsters over the horizon, before they stomp into town.

Because this sort of reportage can lack the you-are-there elements of real-time human drama—after all, if one is reporting about prospective danger, nothing horrible has happened yet—editors often yawn when it is proposed. Preventive reportage is, therefore, relatively rare. In a recent run of stories, however, the Los Angeles Times has presented an impressive and valuable example of such reporting as it has explored plans for major construction on sites that could straddle earthquake faults.

That run started with articles about the Millennium Hollywood project, a pair of towers 39 and 35 stories in height that would flank the famed Capitol Records building. Neighborhood critics of the development had long been focused on traffic concerns and other environmental impacts of the development, which, the Times has reported, involves some 1 million square feet of office, retail, residential, and hotel space. But, as spring turned to summer, the neighbors began warning of a new problem: The Millennium site is close to—and perhaps even split by—the Hollywood earthquake fault.

After an initial daily story by Times reporter Kate Linthicum on these new concerns, staff writers Rong-Gong Lin II and Rosanna Xia and database editor Doug Smith followed with an in-depth look at the Millennium Hollywood project. Since then, opponents of the project have filed suit, and its developers have agreed to do additional seismic work at the site to help determine whether the fault runs under either of the proposed buildings.

The Times team didn’t stop there. About a week after the first enterprise story, they followed up with an article and graphic questioning why the city did not require a seismic evaluation of another project near the Hollywood fault, a $200 million mixed commercial-residential development known as Blvd6200. Yet another story asked why community activists, rather than city planning officials, were the ones who were raising questions about construction near and possibly atop fault lines.

And most recently the team extended the series to an examination of a 39-story residential tower in Century City that received city approval in 2009 without a review for earthquake faults. Subsequent to that approval, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority looked into the possibility of siting a subway station in the area and found that the Santa Monica fault ran through it; MTA research shows a strand of the fault may also run under the tower site. Efforts to build the Century City skyscraper stalled during the Great Recession. Now, as those efforts resume, the developer says his firm will conduct a detailed seismic evaluation.

In a group telephone interview about their coverage of the fault issue, Lin, Xia, and Smith described an editorial process that grew out of the paper’s standing commitment to covering earthquake-related issues and was characterized by teamwork of a type that should be—but often is not—newsroom routine. Linthicum noticed the fault situation while reporting on the Millennium Hollywood dispute and mentioned it to Lin, who specializes in earthquake coverage; meanwhile, Managing Editor Marc Duvoisin read Linthicum’s initial coverage and also suggested a deeper look at the fault angle. While Lin and Xia started reporting, Smith, the data editor, began to pull together digital maps.

As a result of this cooperation—which included additional input from City Hall reporters on development trends in Hollywood—coverage of the Millennium project spread to other proposed developments near (or possibly on) the Hollywood fault. From there, reader input and additional reporting directed attention to the Santa Monica fault and the Century City project.

Strong earthquakes can literally tear buildings that span fault lines in half. So one might think that quake-prone, highly regulated California would have a well-defined process for ensuring that large buildings are not constructed directly above earthquake faults. But as Lin, Xia, and Smith have shown, that process is anything but fail-safe. State law requires developers building in seismic zones to find the exact location of active faults mapped by the state, and the law prohibits owners from building within 50 feet of a fault. But the state has mapped only about 550 active faults, Lin says, and 300 more remain to be mapped—including the Hollywood and Santa Monica faults that the Times focused on.

Because of its seismic history, California has seen much fine coverage of earthquake safety issues; the Center for Investigative Reporting’s “On Shaky Ground,” an investigation into systematic failures in upholding earthquake standards for public schools, is but one example of such distinguished reportage. California news outlets have placed particular emphasis on the need for programs to strengthen unreinforced masonry buildings and other existing structures that are vulnerable to quakes.

But clearly, California journalists have an opportunity—and an ongoing duty —to make sure major new developments are not built atop earthquake faults, and the Times’ recent coverage suggests steps other news organizations should consider taking. Those steps could start online, at the California Geological Survey 2010 Fault Activity Map of California. The CGS site also has fault maps available for download in shapefile format, Smith notes, so they can be layered onto other geospatial maps, locating the faults in relation to streets and other landmarks. The state maps are not necessarily accurate “down to the block level,” Smith notes, but they can help determine whether what the state considers an active fault is somewhere near the site of proposed development.

Locating the exact course of a fault usually requires boring, trench digging, and other in-the-ground seismic inquiry. Cities can require such investigation before they approve major developments, but, as the Times has shown, sometimes they do not. Truly preventive journalism would make sure that kind of seismic investigation happens when it matters—long before construction of a building that could endanger hundreds or thousands of people ever begins.

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John Mecklin is the California and Nevada correspondent for the United States Project, CJR's politics and policy desk. He is the deputy editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Follow him on Twitter @meckdevil. Tags: , , ,