California State University, Northridge – FEMA Earthquake Recovery


On the morning of January 17, 1994 the California State University Northridge (CSUN) campus was heavily damaged by the Northridge Earthquake.  At the time, the 6.7 earthquake was the worst natural disaster in US history.  All 107 buildings on the campus sustained damage, including newer buildings that were in compliance with the latest engineering codes.  Apart from damage to the structures, power and water lines across the campus were broken and the communications infrastructure was destroyed due to water getting into the pressurized cables.

CSUN became the 2nd largest applicant for recovery funding from FEMA as a result of the devastation.  The university embarked on an 8 year recovery effort with an immediate goal of starting the 1994 Spring Semester as quickly as possible, and a long-term goal of modernizing the campus to best meet the needs of its students.  The university worked with FEMA, the California Office of Emergency Services (OES), state/local agencies, and a PM/CM firm to implement this program.

CSUN’s immediate focus after the disaster was to ensure that any negative impact to its students would be as minimal as possible.  With all of its buildings damaged, the university was challenged to not only find a way to start the incoming Spring Semester on-time, but avoid a complete shut-down altogether.  A closure, especially long-term, would not only negatively impact the students, but could affect the university’s accreditation as a four-year university.  In order to get the campus in an operational state in time, hundreds of trailers, tents, and other temporary structures were brought onto the campus and temporary utilities were installed.  Students and faculty quickly acclimated to this new ‘make-shift’ campus, holding classes outside if necessary.  In the end, CSUN was able to begin the 1994 Spring Semester only 2 weeks after it was originally scheduled to start.

With the semester underway, the university shifted its focus to repairing and modernizing the campus for the benefit of its students and staff.  Structures that had been damaged beyond repair were demolished and new buildings with new purposes were built in their place.  The school’s Oviatt Library, the centerpiece of the campus, had sustained damage to its east and west wings and its repairs presented a wide array of challenges.  The damage, which was not discovered until several years later when tests revealed that the structure was slowly collapsing, meant that both wings had to be demolished while the central portion was still in active use.  The east wing also houses an automated book storage and retrieval system that had to remain intact throughout repairs.  The recovery team faced a challenge trying to find stones that would match those existing.  The original source quarry had gone out of business, so a nationwide search was held to find matching stones, resulting in stones being brought in from 3 parts of the country.  The library’s books had sustained substantial water damage, so they had to be sent to a contractor who used a unique freeze-drying method to minimize damage.  Some books had also developed a dangerous type of mold that had to be cleaned by hand before they could be allowed back into circulation.  Though the damage to the structure was extensive, repairs to the library offered opportunities to make improvements that would benefit the students.  Solid concrete walls were replaced with windows in both wings and a grand staircase was added to the entrance.  Internally, columns were removed to allow for uninterrupted rooms, the basement was converted into graduate study rooms and a presentation room, and 700 internet-ready ports were added (a huge upgrade from the mere 17 available prior).  This project also marked the first time that contour map software was used to develop a 3-D model that could portray the structural damage.  A brand new student services building was constructed in place of the damaged administration building.  The student services building grouped the admissions, records, student registration, and counseling departments under one roof to make student access easier.  The campus’ science buildings also sustained heavy damage during the earthquake.  The repair of these buildings presented a unique challenge in that federally funded research projects, worth millions of dollars, were underway and could not be interrupted.  These projects also required clean-air environments that had to be maintained during repairs.  The solution was to repair and strengthen the building from the outside.  New frames were built around the outside of the building and tied into the existing frames and the walls were thickened.  The project was successfully completed without interrupting the research through the use of pumps (to keep the building under positive pressure) and an industrial vacuum cleaner (to contain debris).  The physical education building was also upgraded with new bleachers and a new scoreboard.

Throughout the recovery, the PM/CM group worked closely with CSUN’s faculty members and stakeholders to ensure that all of their needs were met and to keep them informed of the flurry of activities that could impact them.  The result was a construction program that was flexible and dynamic in accommodating the needs of the university.  FEMA has since adopted the program as a model to use in future disaster recovery efforts.  The program was responsible for creating and implementing the grant acceleration program (GAP).  This program helps speed up the funding process, saving time and money and minimizing the negative impacts of a disaster.  The program was one of the first to use 3-D modeling to analyze the behavior of the campus’ structures during the earthquake.  A master file archive was developed to ease the auditing process and ensure that all expenditures were properly accounted for.  This archive allowed for the easy retrieval of all pertinent construction/program documents (change orders, field instructions, contracts, time sheets, etc.).  This resulted in only 3.4% of claims to be disallowed, far less than the 10-15% typical average.  The program was also the first to use a single DSR to cover campus-wide services.  Not having to prepare individual DSRs proved to save time and money, and FEMA later adopted this process for use in future projects/programs.

EUR’s president and founder, Eloy U. Retamal, S.E., originally served as the chief structural engineer.  He was responsible for the initial recovery efforts immediately after the disaster and was later promoted to Program Director.  As director, Mr. Retamal was responsible for managing all design, construction, budgets, damage assessments, project controls, and closeout activities.  He oversaw over 200 prime contractors as well as a staff of project managers, inspectors, contract administrators, estimators, and schedulers.  The program won the Construction Management Association of America’s 2004 Excellence in Program Management Award for programs over $100 million.  This marked the first time this award was given to a higher education project.  In 2006 he successfully closed out all FEMA claims, losing less than ½% of granted money to FEMA disallowance.



Project details
  • Client: California State University, Northridge (CSUN)
  • Date: 1994 - 2006

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