SEATTLE - After the Nisqually earthquake, Seattle set out to identify and retrofit the city's most vulnerable buildings. Many important ones, like fire stations and community centers, were upgraded.
Hundreds of others are as vulnerable now as they were a decade ago.
The Nisqually quake was 33 miles deep and 48 miles away, yet it still caused brick buildings in Seattle to crumble. Then-Mayor Paul Schell toured the devastation and promised his full support.
"We're going to work with all the owners, look these are buildings are all treasures every single one of them,” Schell said.
Many of those treasures are what engineers call unreinforced masonry buildings, which tend to fall apart during earthquakes.
"We know with a big enough earthquake there's going to be significant damage done to unreinforced masonry buildings,” said Barb Graff, Director of Emergency Management for Seattle. “Some could potentially collapse. At minimum there could be damage done that puts people's lives at risk."
Unreinforced masonry buildings sustained more than $8 million in damage from the Nisqually Quake. The earthquake last week in New Zealand illustrates that it can be much worse.
So how far has Seattle progressed with identifying these risky buildings and getting them fixed? Despite the former mayor’s promise, not as much as you might expect.
The KING 5 Investigators found that the city has performed or commissioned four significant studies since 1990, yet they still don’t really know how many unreinforced masonry buildings there are, or how many have been upgraded.
The most recent study, done by an outside engineering firm in 2007-2008, estimated there were 1,000 buildings citywide. Some of Seattle’s landmarks are on that list, but when we asked the Department of Planning and Development which ones had been retrofitted, no one we talked to could say for sure.
The study cost nearly $60,000 but gives only a rough overview because it was done from the sidewalk -- no one actually went inside any of the buildings and the study didn’t cover the entire city, just problem areas.
"The neighborhoods around downtown, like the International District, Pioneer Square, Sodo, Capitol Hill, to really see, get a feel for how many unreinforced masonry buildings we have," said Bryan Stevens in the Community Relations Division of the Department of Planning and Development for Seattle. "And this again is from the sidewalk, so some of these buildings may have been upgraded and repaired but many have not.”
Since the study, city staffers have refined the numbers using aerial photos and other technology, dropping the estimated number of risky buildings to 800. But that’s still a best guess. And there’s no telling when the retrofits will happen.
The Department of Planning and Development's website states, “The City of Seattle has suspended work on the URM (unreinforced masonry) retrofit project. Economic conditions in the community are not favorable for discussion of a building retrofit program and DPD lacks resources to continue the project at this time.”
Most of the dangerous buildings are privately owned, according to the Department of Planning and Development. The city hasn’t even begun to tackle what may be the toughest job yet, which has nothing to do with bricks and mortar. That’s the public policy piece -- implementing regulations to force property owners to retrofit and deciding how much time they will get to do it.
For a progress report on Seattle’s Earthquake Preparedness since 2001 go to: