The face behind the concrete data

Rong-Gong Lin II, L.A. Times reporter for the earthquake, metro, and L.A. Now desks.

Rong-Gong Lin II, L.A. Times reporter for the earthquake, metro, and L.A. Now desks. Source: Twitter

On February 22, 2011, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck near the urban city of Christchurch, New Zealand. The earthquake claimed the lives of 186 people and left thousands of buildings and homes destroyed. Two-thirds of the people killed were inside the modern concrete buildings of the city. Despite the fact that they seemed solid, officials found that the buildings did not have enough reinforcing steel. This served as a catalyst for L.A.Times reporters Ron Lin, Doug Smith, and Rosanna Xia to reopen dialogue that was left neglected since the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

“Having covered seismic issues extensively after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, I knew that the concrete building problem had never been solved” said Smith.

Lin interviewed experts shortly after the New Zealand earthquake and unearthed problems that were associated with concrete buildings. The main issue being that the building can collapse and possibly kill hundreds. By talking to people and researching further into the issue, Lin found that UC researchers held a list of potentially vulnerable buildings that were built before 1980.

“I told Ron he would do a great public service to publish that list,” said Smith.

As it turned out, the UC researchers did not want to release the list for legal reasons. Not only that, the city of Los Angeles never constructed a list of vulnerable concrete buildings. According to Smith, this only increased Lin’s determination to dig into the topic.

After much convincing to their editors about the threat this poses to the public, Lin and Smith were approved to write a story on the concrete buildings. They then brought onto the team Xia, another reporter from the L.A. Times. It took months before they were all able to decide on the scope of the story.

Lin and his team took on the pressure to make an inventory list of nearly 1,000 buildings in Los Angeles. Despite the fact that the reporters wrestled with analyzing the records of each building and speaking to experts, the reporters had the same goal in mind.

“We just wanted to get the discussion rolling,” said Xia, “the challenge of it was to make people realize why it was important even though nothing disastrous has happened yet.”

The reporters walked building to building, checked construction records, interviewed experts, and reached out to the business owners—all of which served as the skeleton of the story. After months going through the building records, it was Lin who gave insight of how the story was going to be presented to the public.

“He has the foresight to loop in our photo and graphics departments at the beginning of our reporting, to think big-picture on how data could be best presented and to turn a story package for a print story into something that is compelling and multi-dimensional for the reader,” said Xia.

The two years of hard work by Lin and his team resulted in the official news release “L.A.’s hidden dangers,” a story and an interactive analysis of the roughly 1,000 concrete buildings located in seven Los Angeles neighborhoods. The interactive map includes the potentially-at-risk buildings, the locations of the earthquake faults, and the 68 surveyed buildings with each of owner’s response.

Lin, Smith, and Xia were finalists for the nation’s best journalism in 2013 by the Scripps Howard Foundation in the investigative reporting category for this story.

The story package additionally received a wave of response from the public, including Mayor Eric Garcetti. As of December 8, 2014, the mayor proposed seismic safety regulations, a mandatory order that requires owners to strengthen the concrete buildings and wooden structures that were built before 1980.

The Times analysis serves as a reminder for public officials to ensure that future projects confrom to the seismic safety standards, such as the construction of the Millennium skyscrapers in Hollywood.

The team’s determination prompted officials to address the issue that was ignored for 20 years and aid in the modification of standards for public safety.

“That’s the empowering role that newspapers and every press has,” said Lin. “Its fair to say that if we didn’t make this an issue, it would be very easy to ignore this.”

Lin’s curiosity and ambition made him an integral part in the construction of the story.

“Ron is among a new generation of reporters who sees data analysis as a basic tool of investigation,” said Smith.

“I think its important to educate the general public and elect officials on stuff they should really know about,” said Lin, “if people know what’s going on, then they have the opportunity to take the right action.”

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