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Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center
University of Colorado
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Boulder, CO 80309-0482

Quick Response Report #166

Damage Assessment After
the Paso Robles (San Simeon, California) Earthquake:
Lessons for Emergency Management

David A. McEntire
Jill Cope

Emergency Administration and Planning
Department of Public Administration
University of North Texas
Denton, TX 76210-0617



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This QR report is available in its entirety only in PDF format. Below you
will find the introduction, background information, conclusion, and references .

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. CMS-0080977. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation or the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center.

Citation: David A. McEntire and Jill Cope. 2004. Damage Assessment After the Paso Robles (San Simeon, California) Earthquake: Lessons for Emergency Management. Quick Response Research Report #166. Boulder, Colorado: Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center, University of Colorado. URL:


Disaster research indicates that response is the most widely studied phase of emergency management (Mileti 1999; Tierney et. al. 2001). Studies have covered a variety of topics including: emergence (Drabek and McEntire 2003), warning (Sorensen 2000), evacuation (Sorensen and Mileti 1988), sheltering (Quarantelli 1982), mass fatality incidents (Hooft et. al. 1989), unrequested donations (Neal 1994), debris management (Swan 2000), politics (Sylves and Waugh 1996), special populations (Fothergill at. al. 1999), general management/administration (Quarantelli 1997) and coordination (McEntire 2002). Ironically, the function that often initiates disaster response operations and facilitates recovery has not received much attention. This vital activity is damage assessment.

The following Quick Response Report attempts to add to the knowledge base of this neglected aspect of emergency management. In so doing, the paper will utilize the San Simeon earthquake in Paso Robles, California (San Luis Obispo County) as a case study to identify lessons for the emergency management profession. These findings cover, among other things, issues ranging from the importance and repetitive nature of damage assessment to coordination challenges among the many actors involved in this post-disaster function. Prior to discussing such issues, the paper will provide background information about Paso Robles and the earthquake, and then discuss the methods utilized to collect data for this study.

Background Information

Paso Robles is a small city (18.7 square miles) situated just North of San Luis Obispo on U.S. Highway 101 in central California. According to the U.S. Census, the population of Paso Robles stood at 26,900 in 2003 (City of Paso Robles 2004). The economy of this city is based heavily upon retail trade, tourism, manufacturing services and agriculture, but there are also construction and finance sectors. Major employers in the area include public schools, the California Youth Authority, Wal-Mart, Specialty Silcone Fabricators, ProForms, and the city government. The State of California declares that the vast majority of people live in single family residences in Paso Robles. However, there are also a limited number of individuals and families that live in mobile homes or apartments. Paso Robles is therefore very similar to the other incorporated cities in San Luis Obispo County.

Because of its location near California's fault lines along the Pacific coast, Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo County are prone to earthquakes. And, at 11:15:56 on December 22, 2003, a major earthquake on the Oceanic fault (a relative of the San Simeon fault) occurred registering 6.5 on the Richter scale. According to a Preliminary Earthquake Report provided by the United States Geological Survey (2004), the earthquake was located at 35.706 degrees North, 121.102 degrees West (about 24 miles West/North West of Paso Robles). The quake had a depth of 4.7 miles and was reported to have lasted for several seconds. Although the earthquake was felt in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, Paso Robles and the County of San Luis Obispo suffered the brunt of the shaking.

The earthquake resulted in both human and material losses. Two women died while trying to exit a downtown retail business; the building crushed them as it toppled to the ground. A few victims were trapped for some time in other collapsed structures and had to be rescued by emergency workers. At least 40 others went to area hospitals with injuries such as lacerations and fractures. As severe as the human toll was, it could have been much worse. When the earthquake occurred, the downtown area was only moderately populated in spite of the busy Christmas shopping season. Also, the normal crowds had not yet gathered for lunch in local restaurants.

But the buildings and infrastructure in the area were not quite as fortunate (see Attachment A). Chimneys were broken on many homes throughout San Luis Obispo County. Porches collapsed and cracks were visible in the exterior walls in other residences. Mobile homes shifted off of their foundations in some areas (Quinn 2003). Windows and the facades of many offices were broken and/or damaged, especially in the City of Paso Robles. Support columns in other edifices were severely weakened throughout the area. One bread store in a downtown area was completely flattened. Turley Wine Cellars lost up to 150 barrels of wine when they crashed to the floor as the shaking began. A number of schools were damaged, but one received losses to 14 classrooms, the auditorium, and a number of school offices. A historic clock tower tipped over in downtown Paso Robles. The City Hall in Atascadero also sustained a substantial amount of damage in the event (Allan 2003). In Paso Robles, the Senior Center was damaged when a fire sprinkler broke, spewing forth a large amount of water to ruin drywall, insulation and floor coverings (City of Paso Robles 2004). The Paso Robles library received damages to the stucco on the exterior of the building and the dry wall on the interior (City of Paso Robles 2004). Along the coast, the historic Hearst Castle was spared but some of the irreplaceable artifacts were damaged inside (Lynem 2004). Roads were cracked in several places including State Highway 46. Gas lines were broken in some neighborhoods (Snow 2003) and up to 100,000 people lost power for a short time. Two of the three water storage tanks in Paso Robles shifted during the earthquake. A large hot spring (1,000 GPM) emerged in the middle of the Paso Robles City parking lot, discharging pungent water into the street. Residences, businesses, government property and the infrastructure had obviously sustained heavy but scattered damages in many areas.

As of January 7, 2004, estimated damages were as follows:

  • $35,000,000 to primary residences
  • $134,510,000 to businesses
  • $54,027,500 to public buildings and equipment
  • $140,000 to agricultural equipment such as irrigation systems and pumps

    Total financial losses along with the cost of debris removal and emergency protective measures amounted to $226,557,500 for the entire county (County of San Luis Obispo 2004). These figures do not include state road systems and other damages or indirect losses/expenses.

    It is necessary to note that most of the affected areas did not experience total losses as has been witnessed in other earthquakes in California and around the world. And, there appeared to be a fairly strong, inverse relation with modern building codes, advances in seismic engineering and retrofitted buildings. Older, unreinforced masonry buildings (URM) seemed to receive most of the damages (Bridges 2003). But, the destruction was severe for this rural area and the small jurisdictions in the County of San Luis Obispo. The earthquake is therefore a good case to study for the purposes of understanding damage assessment.


    Like many other disasters, the Paso Robles earthquake resulted in death, injuries, destruction and disruption. One of the most important and repeated functions undertaken by numerous organizations after this event was damage assessment. It helped to ensure the safety of citizens and emergency workers, and had the goal of bringing outside resources into the area to assist recovery efforts. Although there are different types of and methods for damage assessment, each kind witnessed the challenge of accuracy. Damage assessment was also a key political issue during the disaster declaration process. While there were many problems that appeared during the assessment of damages after this disaster, steps were taken to promote successful evaluations of property destruction and financial losses.

    In closing, it is hoped that this research will benefit scholars and practitioners interested or involved in emergency management. Since the findings in this paper can only be regarded as preliminary due to the utilization of a single-case methodology, the authors encourage additional studies about damage assessment in the future. There is much to be learned about this vital function, which may significantly improve disaster scholarship and assist the emergency management profession as it deals with increased vulnerability and rising disaster losses.


    Allan, L.W. 2003. "City Hall Sustains $10 Million in Damages." Atascadero News, December 31, A1.

    Bridges, Andrew. 2003. "Quake Deaths Show Dangers of Construction.",1282,-3542209,00.html.

    City of Paso Robles. 2004. Demographics, Damage Assessment, Earthquake Repair Funding, Earthquake Information.

    County of San Luis Obispo. 2004. "Summary of Financial Damage Estimates for the San Simeon Earthquake." January 8, San Luis Obispo County Office of Emergency Services.

    Drabek, Thomas E. and David A. McEntire. 2003. "Emergent Phenomena and the Sociology of Disaster: Lessons, Trends and Opportunities from the Research Literature." Disaster Prevention and Management 12 (2): 97-112.

    Fothergill, Alice, Enrique G.M. Maestas, and JoAnne DeRouen Darlington. 1999. Race, Ethnicity and Disasters in the United States: A Review of the Literature." Disasters 33 (2): 156-173.

    Hooft, Peter J., Eric K. Noji and Herman P. Van De Voorde. 1989. "Fatality Management in Mass Casualty Incidents." Forensic Science International 40: 3-14.

    Lynem, Julie. 2004. "Artifacts are Broken, But not Beyond Repair." The Tribune, January 9, A1.

    McEntire, David A. 2002. "Coordinating Multi-Organizational Responses to Disaster: Lessons from the March 28, 2000, Fort Worth Tornado." Disaster Prevention and Management 11 (5): 369-379.

    Mileti, Dennis S. 1999. Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States. Joseph Henry Press: Washington, D.C.

    Neal, David M. 1994. "The Consequences of Excessive Unrequested Donations: The Case of Hurricane Andrew." Disaster Management 6 (1): 23-28.

    Quarantelli, E.L. 1997. "Ten Criteria for Evaluating the Management of Community Disasters." Disasters 21 (2): 39-56.

    Quarantelli, E.L. 1982. Sheltering and Housing After Major Community Disasters: Case Studies and General Observations. Federal Emergency Management Agency: Washington, D.C.

    Quinn, Anne. 2003. "Los Robles Mobilehome Estates Hit Hard by Quake." Paso Robles Press, December 31, A1. 2004. "Governor Schwarzenegger Tours Paso Robles, Declares State of Emergency in San Luis County."

    Snow, Mary. 2003. "Fire Department's Quick Actions Prevented Fires." Paso Robles Press, December 31, A1.

    Snow, Mary and Anne Quinn. 2003. "Downtown Merchants Face an Uncertain Future." Paso Robles Press, December 31, A1.

    Sorensen, John H. 2000. "Hazard Warning Systems: Review of 20 Years of Progress." Natural Hazards Review 1 (2): 119-125.

    Some Basic Questions." Industrial Crisis Quarterly 2: 195-209.

    Swan, Robert C. 2000. "Debris Management Planning for the 21st Century." Natural Hazards Review 1 (4): 222-225.

    Sylves, Richard T. and William L. Waugh. 1996. Disaster Management in the U.S. and Canada: The Politics, Policymaking, Administration and Analysis of Emergency Management. Charles C. Thomas: Springfield, Ill.

    Tierney, Kathleen J., Michael K. Lindell and Ronald W. Perry. 2001. Facing the Unexpected: Disaster Preparedness and Response in the United States. Joseph Henry Press: Washington, D.C.

    Tribune Staff Reporter. 2004. "Local Officials Continue to Push for FEMA Funds." The Tribune, January 7, A1, A6.

    United States Geological Survey. 2004. Preliminary Earthquake Report, Magnitude 6.5 - Central California, 2003 December 22 19:15:56.

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