Will Northern California earthquake revive seismic safety debate?

Your guide to California policy and politics
Emily Hoeven BY Emily Hoeven December 21, 2022
Presented by New California Coalition and California Water Service

Will Northern California earthquake revive seismic safety debate?

Is California prepared for The Big One?

That was the question undoubtedly on many residents’ minds after a 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck Humboldt County in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, resulting in two deaths and at least 12 injuries; damaging homes, roads, bridges, water and gas lines and other critical infrastructure; and leaving about 57,000 PG&E customers without power and many without water.

The quake occurred in a rural stretch of Northern California known as the Mendocino Triple Junction, where three tectonic plates meet — but many residents said this temblor felt different than those that usually rattle the area.

  • Eureka resident Dan Dixon told the Associated Press: “It was probably the most violent earthquake we have felt in the 15 years I have lived here.”
  • Arcata resident Amy Uyeki told the Los Angeles Times: “When it was happening, I thought it was the Big One, because we haven’t felt anything this strong.”

Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services — who is retiring at the end of the year after a decade on the job — noted at a Tuesday press conference that “we live in earthquake country. … This is another example of the fact that earthquakes can occur at any time.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who declared a state of emergency in Humboldt County to support the emergency response, said in a statement that state agencies are working with local and tribal governments to provide shelter, food and water; assess damage to buildings and roadways; restore power; aid local hospitals, some of which lost power and were operating on generators; and monitor seismic activity.

Officials also touted early alert systems that helped notify more than 3 million people by phone that an earthquake was coming. About 270,000 people were notified via the MyShake app funded by the state Office of Emergency Services, while most of the rest were Android users who automatically receive earthquake alerts, according to the Los Angeles Times. Some Californians far from the epicenter were also alerted by a shrill alarm that shook them from bed around 2:30 a.m., prompting frustration.

  • Richard Allen, director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory and a leader of the team that developed the MyShake software, told the San Francisco Chronicle: “Earthquake early warning is never going to be perfect. We very rapidly come up with our best estimate of the magnitude, and we send out a warning to anyone in the zone that would normally feel shaking.”
  • Ghilarducci said: “The system did operate as we had hoped, and (as) we’ve been working to design.”

It’s the latest indication that emergency cell phone alerts have generally proven effective for the state. During the summer heat wave, the Newsom administration decided to send emergency texts to 27 million Californians urging them to conserve energy — a move that brought the state back from the brink of power outages.

Meanwhile, California is quickly approaching a 2030 deadline by which hospitals will be required to be capable of operating as normal after a massive earthquake — or risk being shut down by the state. Hospital groups estimate the required upgrades could cost more than $100 billion, not including financing, and could result in facilities being closed in underserved communities.

In August, an unlikely alliance — the California Hospital Association and the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West — tried to broker a last-minute deal that would have delayed the 2030 deadline while also raising the minimum wage for some health care workers to $25 per hour. The deal fizzled due to a lack of time, Jan Emerson-Shea, vice president of external affairs for the hospital association, said at the time.

  • Emerson-Shea told me Tuesday: “Hospitals have spent over 20 years and billions of dollars to make sure that buildings are safe” and will remain standing after a major earthquake. “Now it’s a conversation about what services make sense to continue to be available in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.”

In other Capitol news: California finally has a new state auditor. Newsom on Tuesday appointed Grant Parks, a principal manager of audit services at the Judicial Council of California, to take over the role vacated about a year ago by Elaine Howle, who led the independent agency for 21 years and whose tough reviews of state agencies were widely respected by both Democrats and Republicans. Parks is registered without party preference and worked at the state auditor’s office from 1999 to 2016, according to Newsom’s office.


1 Politicians sitting on $35M in unused campaign cash

Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock
Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock

Former Gov. Jerry Brown left office in 2019, but he still has $13.1 million in leftover campaign cash. Kevin de León, the scandal-plagued Los Angeles city council member and former state senator, has $3.1 million in a campaign account for California’s 2026 lieutenant governor race. But de León isn’t necessarily going to run for lieutenant governor — to keep unspent funds from a prior campaign, politicians must pass the cash from one account to another each election cycle. CalMatters’ Alexei Koseff and Ben Christopher found that 96 accounts belonging to state political candidates contain about $35 million in funds that were never spent on the campaigns for which they were raised. Although candidates could return the unused campaign cash to their donors, many hold on to it to retain political influence, donate to charities or political allies, or possibly seek office again.

  • For example, the 2026 treasurer campaign controlled by former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez is sitting on nearly $2 million. That’s what remains of the $2.1 million the account received from Núñez’s treasurer 2022 committee, which got its cash from a Fabian Núñez for Treasurer 2018 committee, which was funded by a treasurer 2014 account, which was funded by a committee for a 2010 state Senate campaign.
  • In recent years, Núñez has used campaign funds to support the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, a nonprofit for which his son, Esteban, is a lobbyist, and After-School All-Stars, a charity founded by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a personal friend who before leaving office commuted Esteban Núñez’s prison sentence for his role in a stabbing death.
  • De León’s most recent publicly reported contribution, meanwhile, was a $25,000 payment to the Santa Clara County Board of Education campaign of Magdalena Carrasco, his former romantic partner and the mother of his daughter. Carrasco lost her race.

2 Panel recommends big changes to criminal justice laws

Police lights on during the night. Photo via iStock
Police lights on during the night. Photo via iStock

California should create a state-funded system to pay restitution to crime victims and establish their right to restorative justice, ban police officers from stopping drivers for reasons unconnected to traffic safety and limit the types of vehicle searches they can conduct, and enforce a state Supreme Court ruling that requires judges to consider a defendant’s ability to pay when setting bail. Those were among the recommendations unveiled Monday in an annual report from the Committee on Revision of the Penal Code, whose members are mostly appointed by the governor and whose suggestions to state lawmakers have radically reshaped criminal justice laws in California. Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner of Berkeley, a member of the committee, told the San Francisco Chronicle she plans to introduce bills in January to codify some of the report’s recommendations.

Here’s a closer look at the report’s rationale for some of the recommendations:

  • California needs a better restitution system for crime victims: Conservative estimates of available data show that courts each year order convicted people to pay at least $150 million to victims to cover their financial losses, but in fiscal year 2020-21 just $55 million was collected. By establishing a state-funded system, not only will victims receive their money more quickly, but defendants — most of whom can’t afford to pay restitution anyway — won’t face as many criminal fines and fees that can push them further into poverty.
  • Police stops for technical traffic infractions are ineffective and result in “disturbing racial disparities.” For example, Black people were stopped 112% more frequently in 2020 than would be expected given their share of California’s population. However, the report notes that speeding — which does endanger public safety — was far and away the most common reason for police traffic stops that year. Republican Assemblymember Bill Essayli of Riverside County told the Los Angeles Times that limiting traffic stops could be “really dangerous and can really lead to a lot of crimes going undiscovered and unsolved” because officers sometimes find drugs, guns or evidence of other crimes during the stops.
  • California’s bail system needs reform. Many of the more than 44,000 people awaiting trial on any given day in California’s jails can’t afford to pay bail and haven’t been released, despite a 2021 decision from the state’s highest court that says their ability to pay shouldn’t be the sole factor keeping them behind bars. Indeed, there’s no evidence the state’s bail amounts, pretrial jail population or average length of pretrial detention have decreased since the ruling, according to a recent report from the UCLA School of Law Bail Practicum and the UC Berkeley School of Law Policy Advocacy Clinic.

3 Will pay transparency law work as intended?

Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock
Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock

Have you ever looked at a job posting and wished that it included a salary range? Well, starting on Jan. 1, California employers with at least 15 workers will be required to share that information in job postings, and businesses with at least 100 employees will also have to report more detailed pay data to the state. But some advocates are worried that companies will be able to find ways around the law, as they have in other areas with similar regulations, CalMatters’ Grace Gedye reports. In New York City, for example, some employers posted unhelpfully wide ranges the first day the law was in place, leaving workers in the dark as to how much they might actually earn.


CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: The biggest mystery in California’s struggle to maintain water supplies: What will happen to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta?

California’s screening for adverse childhood experiences is imperfect, but important: Some child advocates worry that the state program has pitfalls that could cause even greater harm. But the tool is effective and beneficial, and helps create systemic change in health care, argue Dr. Mikah Owen, a pediatrician and a director of the organization that implements the California program, and Dr. Jeoffrey B. Gordon, a retired family doctor in Santa Cruz, in separate reader reactions.


Other things worth your time

Some stories may require a subscription to read

Alameda County just became the nation’s first to prohibit criminal background checks on tenants. // San Francisco Chronicle

Oakland reinstates mask mandate in government buildings amid surging COVID cases. // San Francisco Chronicle

Union membership declines again among California state workers. Leaders blame remote work. // Sacramento Bee

Jeffries bypasses two Californians in his pick to lead the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. // Los Angeles Times

As LA County’s mental health workers burn out, some weigh options. // Los Angeles Times

The official who investigates suspicious deaths in your town may be a doctor — or not. // California Healthline

San Francisco to open its first public youth psychiatric hospital. // San Francisco Examiner

Why San Franciscans wait so long for ambulances. // San Francisco Standard

San Diego Blood Bank calls for increased donations as shortage looms. // San Diego Union-Tribune

How SF politicians plan to address drug crisis, homelessness in 2023. // San Francisco Chronicle

LA County extends pandemic eviction protections by one month. // LAist

UC Santa Barbara ‘Dormzilla’ a safety risk, report says. // Los Angeles Times

SF’s Fillmore district is the latest neighborhood in revolt over homelessness and drugs. // San Francisco Chronicle

What would it take to end homelessness in California? $8 billion a year for 12 years, report estimates. // Mercury News

This Oakland nonprofit leader has no idea how she captured the attention of a billionaire. // San Francisco Chronicle

California cities dominate list of happiest in country, study says. // The Hill

See you tomorrow


Tips, insight or feedback? Email emily@calmatters.org.

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