A big earthquake may be coming, and Washington and Seattle are kicking the can down the road on common-sense seismic upgrades.
AN earthquake is coming. It’s not a matter of if, but when. The lack of a date certain for calamity has allowed an acquiescence to settle in. The state and region are not ready, especially not our schools. We should be preparing now, because an earthquake, probably a big one, is coming.
The highest odds — at 84 percent over the next 50 years — are on a quake similar to the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. That one caused $2 billion in damage, but it would look minor compared to a fracture along the Seattle fault, which basically runs under Interstate 90.
It is less likely, but if that type happens, a Seattle fault earthquake would cause catastrophic damage in Seattle and Bellevue — potentially hundreds of deaths and more broken buildings and infrastructure than a Transformers movie. If you want to know what that would look like, read The Seattle Times’ recent story on a similar earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Most terrifying is the fact that we’re overdue for a mega-earthquake 2,000 times more powerful than the Nisqually quake. It would be a “Full-Rip 9” — a massive shift of tectonic plates off the Pacific Coast that could trigger a coastal tsunami and minutes-long shaking throughout the region. There hasn’t been a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake since 1700, but scientists now know that magnitude 8.0 quakes happen about once every 250 years on average.
Over the past year, Seattle Times reporters Sandi Doughton and Daniel Gilbert have cataloged the lack of seismic precautions in a sobering series, “Seismic Neglect.”
The most unsettling finding is that Washington’s schools are woefully unprepared. A 9.0 megaquake and tsunami might kill as many as 7,600 students and staff members and cause $4 billion in damage to schools, according to a state report in 2014. The losses would be heaviest on the Pacific Coast, where 75 percent of schools could be extensively damaged; 20 percent of the schools in the Interstate 5 corridor would also be damaged.
Oregon and California have laws regarding seismic upgrades for schools; British Columbia is spending $3 billion on provincewide, school-seismic upgrades. Washington doesn’t have any law or mandates — in fact, it doesn’t even require a survey of schools to assess seismic risk.
As the Legislature tackles reform of its broken school-financing model next year, it has a moral obligation to include seismic upgrades for schools.
Similarly, Seattle building owners and regulators have been kicking the can for decades on seismic upgrades for unreinforced brick-faced buildings — the type most vulnerable in earthquakes. There have been four surveys to identify such buildings in Seattle just since 2007, with unsurprising results. Of the 1,100 or so unreinforced brick buildings citywide, more than one third are within a mile of the Columbia Tower, in the city’s oldest neighborhoods.
San Francisco tackled this problem decades ago, using voter-approved bonds to offer low interest loans to incentivize upgrades, especially in older apartment buildings that offer affordable housing. Portland is working on an upgrade plan to send to its city council in 2017, and the Oregon Legislature has offered businesses public financing to upgrade.
The city of Seattle has been discussing the problem since at least the 1970s. It requires upgrades if a building is being extensively renovated, but does not yet have a plan to tackle seismic upgrades of vulnerable buildings. It should, because a big one is coming — maybe tomorrow, maybe next year, maybe in a decade.
Washington’s unique and beautiful geography comes with known risks. We’re in earthquake country. We can expect a big one, and we are unprepared.