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L.A. Wants To Make Our Precious Cell Towers Safe In A Big Earthquake

An ugly but crucial palm tree cell tower (Photo by atricksmercy via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
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The last time a major earthquake hit Los Angeles was in 1994 when landlines were still in style. Right now cell phone towers are required built to be strong enough that they won't fall over and kill us in an earthquake, which is great. But now Los Angeles is working on making sure that our cell phone towers will actually function after the Big One hits. Because wouldn't it be nice to be able to call your mom and tell her you're alive?

The 7.9 earthquake in Sichuan—which left 88,000 dead—also disabled 2,000 cellphone towers and left the city in even more chaos for weeks. Those towers in China are built to the same kinds of standards as our own. So today the City Council took a big step toward passing a law that would do something about this, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The new law will require new freestanding cellphone towers—including those ugly "palm trees" that aren't fooling anyone—to be built to the same strict seismic standards of public facilities. It isn't expected to cost much more—an extra 10% to 20%.

City officials are calling it an important first step, though it does have some pretty big limitations. All those cell phone towers you see right now won't be required to be retrofitted. That's because retrofitting them would cost just as much as putting up completely new towers. And cell phone towers that are attached to buildings, which in themselves might not be up to stricter codes, especially if they're older, won't be required to meet the new standards. Right now in Los Angeles, 60% of towers are attached to buildings.

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Councilman Bob Blumenfield, who sponsored the legislation proposed by the mayor, says even this small step could make a big difference: even a fraction of cell towers left standing will come in handy during a time of need.

The new law has the blessing of Lucy Jones, a U.S. Geological Survey seismologist, who has advised Mayor Eric Garcetti in the past. She told the Times, "We're not trying to solve all the problems. We are trying to reduce the problems ... so that we reduce the chances we’re going to damage the economy."

Los Angeles is the first city in the nation to enact strict cell phone tower standards. Jones said, "This is really sort of a first time that, looking forward, we said the government’s role goes beyond just saving lives, and has a role in making sure that our economy is up and functioning after a disaster."

The ordinance was approved by the city council 11-0 but it requires one more vote plus the mayor's John Hancock, according to City News Service.