The aftermath of the December earthquake for one Rio Dell home. Photo: Ryan Burns.

One thing that last month’s earthquake demonstrated – as earthquakes in Humboldt tend to do, every decade or so – is the importance of retrofitting the beautiful old buildings that make up the bulk of the county’s housing stock. When the big ones strike, they invariably knock some old buildings off their foundations.

The Dec. 20 earthquake was the most destructive in quite a while. It made 69 buildings in Rio Dell at least temporarily uninhabitable. Most of them had old, unimproved foundations.

This is a serious problem in Humboldt County. The Census Bureau’s most recent version of the American Community Survey estimates that 59.4 percent of the county’s occupied housing units were built before 1980, the year that California instituted seismic safety standards for new construction. That’s just a bit higher than the state average (56.3 percent) and a lot higher than the national average (49.9 percent).

But it’s even worse than that. As much as 15.4 percent of the county’s housing stock is very old – built before 1940. That’s almost twice as much as the state as a whole. And the North Coast is the most seismically active place in the contiguous United States, and the really big one – the Cascadia Subduction Zone megathrust – is due, oh, any year now.

There’s a way to fortify old homes to better withstand big quakes. It’s called “Earthquake Brace and Bolt,” and it involves tethering the frame of a house to its foundation. There are two problems with it: It’s not particularly cheap, and it requires you to have a concrete foundation to begin with. Some houses in Humboldt don’t, but many do — and brace and bolt could save them.

“Every house in Rio Dell that I drove by that’s off its foundation could have benefited from an EBB retrofit,” said Janiele Maffei, a trained engineer who currently serves as the chief mitigation officer for the California Earthquake Authority, this morning.

Earthquake Brace + Bolt House Model Demonstration from CRMP on Vimeo.

Maffei is in Humboldt this week because the Earthquake Authority — a quasi-autonomous non-profit organization set up by the state that provides earthquake insurance to homeowners — has a program that can make these brace and bolt retrofits a lot more affordable to homeowners. The authority gives out $3,000 grants to people who wish to get their owner-occupied homes braced and bolted, and even larger grants for people who meet certain income qualifications. These grants amount to a significant percentage of the cost of doing this work (provided, again, that the homeowner already has a concrete foundation).

The problem? Humboldt County simply doesn’t have enough contractors signed up to perform that work. As of this moment, there are only three local  contractors registered with the authority, and they need many more to meet demand. Maffei says that she has 169 local people signed up for the grant program, and three contractors aren’t enough to service all of them.

This is a bit puzzling, Maffei says, given the uptake in other parts of California.

“The nice thing is that we’ve been able to provide this steady stream of income,” she says. “There are contractors who this is all they’re doing. There are contractors who make this their industry.”

So she is up here recruiting new Humboldt County contractors to join the program, and also listening to contractors to hear about any impediments they might be facing that prevent them from joining. Earlier this afternoon she met with the Humboldt Builders Exchange and made her pitch. She said they had a “positive discussion,” and that the builders asked lots of great questions. She’s hopeful more contractors might sign on.

Meanwhile, if you’re interested in the grant program as a homeowner, there’s a bit of bad news: It’s currently closed to new applications for the year. But they’ll open applications again sometime in the coming months. You can sign up at this website to get on their mailing list and be notified when that happens. If you’re in an old pier-and-post home, their grants can also defray the cost of putting in a concrete foundation — and, of course, bracing and bolting your house to that new foundation.