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National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program Los Angeles School District

This page is about learning how the Los Angeles school district retrofitted their schools to prevent future injury and damage from earthquakes.

Seismic Retrofitting of Non-Structural Elements: Lighting in the Los Angeles Unified School District

Along with the structural modification of buildings, there are many non-structural measures that can be taken to protect people and property from seismic hazards. The suspended lighting retrofit project that was initiated after the Northridge Earthquake disaster for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) provides one such example.

The LAUSD is second in size only to the New York City School District. At present, the District is composed of over 900 schools, serves a population of over 800,000 students, and employs 57,000 full-time and 24,000 part-time staff. The LAUSD provides public educational services to a 708 square mile area including the Cities of Los Angeles, Bell, Carson, Cudahay, Gardenia, Huntington Park, Lomita, Maywood, San Fernando, South Gate, Vernon, and West Hollywood; portions of 18 other cities; and the unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County.

At the time of the Northridge Earthquake, the LAUSD facilities consisted of about 50 million square feet of building space, of which about 15 million square feet were illuminated with suspended ceiling and imbedded pendant lighting systems. These lights have proven to be dangerous to people who are in schools subject to earthquakes. The Northridge Earthquake caused hundreds of lighting units to fall onto desks in classrooms that the students and teachers would normally occupy during a school day. Fortunately, the earthquake occurred early in the morning when the schools were closed in observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. As a result of this earthquake experience, the LAUSD, with the support of FEMA, decided to undertake the seismic retrofitting or replacement of pendant lights to reduce the earthquake injury risk and to meet current building code standards.

The reinforcement and/or replacement of the unbraced pendant lights in the Los Angeles Unified School District will reduce the high risk of injury to the more than 800,000 school children during the next earthquake event.

In the Northridge Earthquake, 5,500 buildings owned by LAUSD suffered an estimated $134 million in damages. Under Section 406 of the Stafford Act, FEMA funded $3.1 million for damaged, unbraced pendant ceiling and lights. In addition, $45 million was obligated under Section 404 of the Stafford Act to mitigate unbraced pendant ceiling and light systems of the same design that were not damaged. Detailed benefit/cost analyses were completed for all of these mitigation projects.

It is important to note that the rationale for funding the upgraded ceiling and lighting systems takes into account the probability that earthquakes will occur at all hours of the day (not just school hours). However, if an earthquake were to occur during school hours, the injury and death rates would be much higher than the average assumed for a 24-hour period. Given the potential injury and death rates during school hours, this type of mitigation was considered worthwhile and cost-effective.

Following the Northridge Earthquake, about $162 million was allocated by FEMA to the LAUSD. In repairing the damages from the earthquake, buildings were upgraded to current building code standards which include provisions for safe lighting. With the expenditure of these funds, FEMA is confident that the 800,000 school children of the LAUSD are in a much safer environment and have much less chance of injury or disruption of their education should another earthquake strike.

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Last Updated: 
04/23/2015 - 12:45