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Busy Period for EBB Team as More California Homes Get a Boost Against Earthquake Damage

April 21, 2022

It has been a record-breaking season for the Earthquake Brace + Bolt (EBB) program, with a greater number of Californians registered to participate for a chance to receive a grant to retrofit their houses. And as more Californians make the smart decision to strengthen their older homes, to help reduce earthquake damage, EBB team members have been extremely busy. They are diligently working on the administrative processes and paperwork to help homeowners, who successfully applied for a grant, keep on track to meet the retrofit deadlines.

Poster promoting seismic retrofits to help older homes become earthquake resistant
Poster promoting seismic retrofits to help older homes become earthquake resistant.

CEA and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) joined efforts in 2011 as the California Residential Mitigation Program (CRMP). Together, in 2013, they created EBB, an incentive program designed to keep Californians and their homes safer in the event of an earthquake.

Currently, people who own homes built prior to 1980, have a raised foundation and are located in qualifying ZIP Codes, are eligible to participate in the EBB grant program. These older homes are more vulnerable to earthquake damage because they were built before modern seismic codes were established in California. The selected homeowners may receive up to $3,000 to help pay for a seismic retrofit. And if they identify themselves as low income and verify having a household income of $72,080 or less a year, they may receive supplemental funds to help pay for the entire cost of the retrofit work. This new Supplementary Grant, which started in 2021, was designed to help low-income and diverse communities improve their seismic resilience.

“We are thrilled that, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, more Californians decided to register for a grant to make their older homes stronger,” said Janiele Maffei, CRMP Executive Director and California Earthquake Authority (CEA) Chief Mitigation Officer. “A seismic retrofit can help homes withstand strong ground shaking and increase the probability that these structures will remain safe and available for shelter.”

Poster promoting EBB’s new Supplemental Grant for qualifying low-income households
Poster promoting EBB’s new Supplemental Grant for qualifying low-income households.

The uptick in work for the EBB team may be partially due to a press announcement in October 2021, that the program had five-million dollars in grants to help homeowners pay for a seismic retrofit of their homes with an additional one-million dollars specifically aimed at low-income households. The accompanying media and outreach efforts contributed to an unprecedented 13,000 homeowners who registered for a chance to participate in the program, including more than 3,000 who self-identified as low-income.

After registration closed on December 9, 2021, the first group of homeowners were randomly chosen via an electronic selection process. Each selected registrant then began to submit their pre-retrofit documents and pictures, which are reviewed and approved by the EBB team, before they are submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This painstaking deliberative process involved a considerable amount of communication with the applicants (via email and phone). In fact, the EBB team held about 10,000 phone conversations with applicants over a six-month period.

EBB notified the successful homeowners whether they had been selected to participate in the current program year or been placed on a wait-list. Staff have also been working with homeowners to help them complete the paperwork needed for the required permits and even assisting them with a list of qualified contractors. 

“We often receive praise of the thorough work that EBB staff perform to help each selected homeowner complete the grant process,” said Annde Ewertsen, Managing Director of EBB and CEA Mitigation Director. “We are proud of all the work we’ve done to make the retrofit process be as smooth and easy to navigate and complete, while we help Californians take the path toward home resilience before an earthquake event.”

Despite the huge public interest in the EBB retrofit grants, funds are limited. As most Californians live within 30 miles of an active fault, we encourage homeowners, especially those already planning home improvements, not to wait for a chance to receive a grant—but to instead use their own resources to reduce their earthquake risk by strengthening their older homes.

In California, more than 1.2 million pre-1940 homes—in high-seismic-hazard areas—are particularly vulnerable to earthquakes. Some because they have a cripple wall type of construction, while others present or were modified to include the “soft-story” feature, which means they have a living-space over garage. However, the soft-story problem can also be found in houses built through the year 2000. According to the 2010 San Francisco Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety (CAPSS) report, 54 percent of all homes in the San Francisco Bay Area are believed to be soft-story, but only 10 percent of them have been retrofitted. A seismic retrofit can significantly help improve the performance of these homes in an earthquake by making them stronger and more resilient, creating a safer environment for residents and their families.

The average cost of a residential seismic retrofit for a California home, with a raised foundation, is about $5,500 and, in most cases, it only takes a couple of days to complete the actual construction. So, if homeowners receive a refund from Uncle Sam this year or have the savings available, they may find investing in a home retrofit worthwhile. A recent study from the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research (PEER) Center shows that strengthening a home against shake damage may save a homeowner between $10,000 and $200,000 in repair costs resulting from a damaging earthquake. It is worth noting homeowners are unlikely to receive governmental funds after an earthquake.

These houses are vulnerable to earthquake damage
These types of houses are vulnerable to earthquake damage. The good news is they can be strengthened with a seismic retrofit.

Retrofits can also help boost the local economy

The benefits of a seismic retrofit go beyond making homes more resistant to quake damage. The work also contributes to the economic growth of the local communities where these homes are being strengthened.

For example, according to EBB since their program started in 2012, more than $95 million has been poured into California’s construction industry; $50.4 million in the Bay Area alone. EBB currently has about one thousand contractors, mostly small businesses, in their directory to help homeowners get started on strengthening their homes. This seismic retrofit work can have a positive trickledown effect on the local and regional economies as crews buy their raw material from regional establishments and workers potentially buy snacks, gas, and other supplies from neighborhood businesses.

Economics aside, the main goal of a residential retrofit is to help prevent earthquake damage, keep families safe, and prevent displacement and homelessness after a damaging earthquake. It can play a major role in helping make communities more resilient.

Despite the enormous amount of behind-the-scenes work, to help selected homeowners process all the requirements in a timely manner, the EBB staff still have time to do community outreach. Recently, Maffei gave a presentation to the Tamalpais Neighborhood Response Group, warning residents about the types of homes that are vulnerable to earthquake damage and how an EBB code-compliant retrofit strengthens homes. 

No one can predict when the Big One will occur, but we know it is coming. In 2015 scientists said that in the next 30 years, there is more than a 99% chance that one or more magnitude 6.7 or greater earthquakes will strike somewhere in the Golden State. Making our homes more earthquake resistant, with a seismic retrofit, is a smart way to be prepared for a major earthquake.

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