Earthquake News

Protecting Seattle from Earthquakes: An Urgent Need for Building Retrofits

SEATTLE — With recent devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, it serves as a reminder that Seattle is not immune to the dangers of earthquakes. Schoolchildren in Western Washington regularly practice earthquake drills, but the question remains: are their school buildings safe?

According to emergency management consultant Eric Holdeman, "While some retrofit work has been successful, there's still much more to be done. Many elementary and public high schools are still at risk." Seattle Public Schools serves as a model for seismic retrofits, but schools outside the city require attention as well.

The Nisqually earthquake nearly 22 years ago demonstrated the potential danger of older unreinforced masonry buildings in the event of an earthquake. Seattle keeps a list of these types of buildings that are at high risk of collapse in the event of a major earthquake. To date, 200 out of the 1,100 unreinforced masonry buildings in Seattle have undergone some form of retrofitting.

The University of Washington is working to retrofit its 25 unreinforced masonry buildings, with half having been addressed thus far in a project estimated to cost over $100 million. Meanwhile, Seattle Central College is seeking funding to retrofit its 1911 Broadway Performance Hall.

"We know which buildings are vulnerable and have an engineering strategy to fix them. We simply need to take action," said Amanda Hertzfeld of the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections. Pioneer Square has a large concentration of these vulnerable buildings.

The city is working with experts to implement an ordinance in late 2024 mandating building retrofits. However, the financial burden of retrofitting falls on building owners, making the process challenging. The city is exploring options to provide financial assistance to building owners, as retrofitting work is expensive. In 2019, a city consultant estimated the total cost of retrofitting all buildings would be $1.2 billion, a figure that has likely risen due to recent inflation. The city ordinance will likely give building owners seven to 13 years to complete the retrofitting work.

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