NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, February 28th, 2021

Twenty years after the Nisqually earthquake, seismic upgrades still needed across Cascadia

Two decades ago, as morn­ing drew to a close around Puget Sound, the ground sud­den­ly began to shake. It would go on shak­ing for near­ly a minute, in what would become known as the Nisqually earth­quake… a 6.8 mag­ni­tude tem­blor that caused bil­lions of dol­lars in dam­age and cat­alyzed long over­due con­ver­sa­tions about seis­mi­cal­ly retro­fitting Cas­ca­di­a’s vul­ner­a­ble, aging infrastructure.

With twen­ty years hav­ing passed, it seems like a good time to take stock of how far we’ve come towards being ready for the next geo­log­ic haz­ard, whether it be anoth­er inter­slab earth­quake, or the even more wor­ry­ing Big One (a rup­ture of the Cas­ca­dia Sub­duc­tion Zone), or a vol­canic erup­tion and ensu­ing lahar, or a tsuna­mi caused by an earth­quake in anoth­er part of the world.

KING5 has admirably been engaged in such an exer­cise for prac­ti­cal­ly a week now, and The Seat­tle Times joined the par­ty today with a lengthy and excel­lent front page arti­cle in its Sun­day edi­tion by reporter San­di Doughton.

This post rep­re­sents NPI’s con­tri­bu­tion to the con­ver­sa­tion — at least at this junc­ture. As impor­tant as it is to mark this occa­sion, it’s even more impor­tant that we keep the con­ver­sa­tion going so we can cre­ate an envi­ron­ment con­ducive to secur­ing the invest­ments we need to pro­tect Cas­ca­dia from future geo­log­ic haz­ards. Because they are com­ing. It’s only a mat­ter of time.

In fact, we are on bor­rowed time. We’re over­due for an earth­quake much worse than what we expe­ri­enced twen­ty years ago on that last day of Feb­ru­ary. It could strike at any moment, with almost no warn­ing or time to prepare.

There is no ques­tion we’ve made some progress since the Nisqually quake trau­mat­i­cal­ly remind­ed us that we live in a region that belongs to the Pacif­ic Ring of Fire. Yet there is also a lot that remains to be done.

The win column

On the pos­i­tive side of the ledger are a slew of projects that have retro­fit­ted or removed unsafe build­ings and facil­i­ties that could have come down in a quake.

For exam­ple:

  • On the megapro­ject front, WSDOT suc­cess­ful­ly replaced both the Alaskan Way Viaduct and State Route 520’s Ever­green Point Float­ing Bridge, both of which were old and crum­bling. The via­duc­t’s suc­ces­sor is a tun­nel run­ning under­neath First Avenue, which could be a vital means of mov­ing vehi­cles through the down­town core in the after­math of a dis­as­ter. 520, mean­while, has a a new float­ing bridge designed to resist disasters.
  • The State Capi­tol in Olympia was retro­fit­ted and seis­mi­cal­ly upgrad­ed to be more earth­quake resis­tant — work that tem­porar­i­ly dis­placed both cham­bers of the Leg­is­la­ture. The project, which cost over $120 mil­lion, secured the build­ing’s his­toric and icon­ic dome to its sup­port­ing columns.
  • When the quake hit, Seat­tle Taco­ma Inter­na­tion­al Air­port was actu­al­ly in the mid­dle of a project to improve the safe­ty of the air­port com­plex. The quake bad­ly dam­aged the air traf­fic con­trol tow­er; a tem­po­rary one had be con­struct­ed. A new tow­er engi­neered to resist earth­quakes, unlike the one built in the 1950s, was suc­cess­ful­ly com­plet­ed and came online in 2004.

Work to replace Seat­tle’s vul­ner­a­ble sea­wall remains in progress, while WSDOT is rebuild­ing Col­man Dock, the state’s biggest fer­ry ter­mi­nal. The new Muk­il­teo Fer­ry Ter­mi­nal, which began oper­a­tions ear­li­er this win­ter, is anoth­er exam­ple of a win.

A long list of bridges and over­pass­es have been torn down and replaced, or sta­bi­lized — since 2001, like this bridge in the I‑90 cor­ri­dor.

In NPI’s home­town of Red­mond, a long list of school build­ings have been demol­ished and replaced with new cam­pus­es that are much more seis­mi­cal­ly safe since the turn of the cen­tu­ry, includ­ing Red­mond Mid­dle School, Red­mond High School, Horace Mann Ele­men­tary, Lake Wash­ing­ton High School, and Juani­ta High School. These projects were financed by vot­er-approved bonds.

The Lake Wash­ing­ton School Dis­trict, which has one of the most afflu­ent tax bases of any dis­trict in the state, was able to replace a large num­ber of schools in only a few years with pri­mar­i­ly local (as opposed to state) funding.

The still-to-do column

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, for every struc­ture that has been seis­mi­cal­ly mod­ern­ized, there are many more that have not. And dis­turbing­ly, sev­er­al of these struc­tures are ele­men­tary schools with unre­in­forced mason­ry in rur­al communities.

KING5’s Drew Mikkelsen has been to some of these schools.

So has Super­in­ten­dent of Pub­lic Instruc­tion Chris Reyk­dal. Reyk­dal wants state leg­is­la­tors to bud­get funds for fix­es to the fol­low­ing buildings:

  • Burling­ton-Edi­son School Dis­trict 100, Burling­ton-Edi­son High School, Gym­na­si­um-Field­house Building
  • Cen­tralia School Dis­trict 401, Wash­ing­ton Ele­men­tary School, Main Building
  • Clover Park School Dis­trict, Custer Ele­men­tary, Class­room Building
  • Fed­er­al Way Pub­lic Schools, Camelot Ele­men­tary School, Main Building
  • Hoquiam School Dis­trict #28, Cen­tral Ele­men­tary School, Main Building
  • Mary M. Knight School Dis­trict 311, Mary M. Knight School, Ele­men­tary School Building
  • Marysville School Dis­trict 25, Marysville-Pilchuck High School, Library Build­ing (Build­ing J)
  • Mor­ton School Dis­trict, Mor­ton Ele­men­tary School, Main Building
  • Napavine School Dis­trict, Napavine Jr/Sr High School, Annex Building
  • Ocean Beach School Dis­trict, Ilwa­co High School, Main Building
  • Port Townsend School Dis­trict, Port Townsend High School, Gym Building
  • Port Townsend School Dis­trict, Port Townsend High School, Math-Sci­ence Annex
  • Quilcene School Dis­trict #48, Quilcene K‑12 School, Mid­dle School Building
  • Quilcene School Dis­trict #48, Quilcene K‑12 School, High School Building
  • South Bend Pub­lic Schools, South Bend Jr/Sr High School, High School Main Building
  • Taco­ma Pub­lic Schools, Taco­ma School of the Arts, Pacif­ic Avenue Building
  • Wood­land Pub­lic Schools, Wood­land Mid­dle School, Gym Building

Reyk­dal is ask­ing for $50 mil­lion in fund­ing this year for school safe­ty mod­ern­iza­tion projects. The Leg­is­la­ture should bud­get more… much more.

We need­n’t stop with these sev­en­teen buildings.

We can do more in this bien­ni­um’s bud­get. And we should.

We need to stop act­ing like we have lots of time to deal with this threat. Because there’s a very good chance we’ll all be shook up again very soon.

As men­tioned, we’re oper­at­ing on bor­rowed time. Anoth­er quake could strike at any time, and it could be very dead­ly and destruc­tive if we don’t seis­mi­cal­ly retro­fit or replace our old build­ings and bridges.

Coastal com­mu­ni­ties face the added threat of tsunamis, while towns nes­tled in moun­tain val­leys or along drainage sys­tems face the added threat of lahars.

For years, NPI has lob­bied the Wash­ing­ton State Leg­is­la­ture for an increase in the Depart­ment of Nat­ur­al Resources’ bud­get to study and plan for geo­log­ic haz­ards. I’ve per­son­al­ly tes­ti­fied in front of the Sen­ate Ways & Means Com­mit­tee on this very top­ic more than once. How­ev­er, despite con­ced­ing that the risks from geo­log­ic haz­ards are grave, leg­is­la­tors have con­tin­ued to under-invest in DNR’s Earth Sci­ences divi­sion, declin­ing to grant DNR all the fund­ing it has asked for.

Every pen­ny of every sin­gle request that Com­mis­sion­er Hillary Franz made should have been appro­pri­at­ed in the last few ses­sions. Franz did­n’t pro­pose any­thing that was not one hun­dred per­cent wor­thy of being fund­ed. Her deci­sion pack­ages should have all made it into the bud­get. Every. Last. One. But they didn’t.

Bet­ter infor­ma­tion yields bet­ter deci­sions. We can’t under­take every sin­gle project that’s need­ed right away, or simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, so we need to pri­or­i­tize. It would be eas­i­er to pri­or­i­tize if we had more pub­licly employed geol­o­gists and more resources our pub­licly employed geol­o­gists could use for their essen­tial work.

For years, fed­er­al grants have kept many pub­lic geol­o­gy ini­tia­tives going. As impor­tant as fed­er­al fund­ing is, states also have an impor­tant role to play. State geol­o­gists and their teams are on the front lines of the effort in Cas­ca­dia to map and ana­lyze the part of the Earth­’s lithos­phere we’re all liv­ing on top of.

Appalling­ly, we’ve been going in the wrong direc­tion lately.

In Ore­gon, for instance, Gov­er­nor Kate Brown inex­plic­a­bly and inde­fen­si­bly pro­posed doing away with DOGAMI, Ore­gon’s geo­log­i­cal sur­vey, in her 2021 bud­get pro­pos­al. And that was after the State of Ore­gon had laid off vet­er­an per­son­nel like Yumei Wang due to pan­dem­ic bud­get cuts.

Thank­ful­ly, Brown’s office began back­ing down after a pub­lic out­cry and a tsuna­mi (pun intend­ed) of com­plaints from geol­o­gists, includ­ing this peti­tion.

But that debate nev­er should have tak­en place. What we ought to be talk­ing  about is expand­ing state lev­el fund­ing for geol­o­gy, so that we can offer the best and bright­est young minds study­ing the pro­fes­sion jobs in the pub­lic sec­tor doing the peo­ple’s work, rather than mega­cor­po­ra­tions in the fos­sil fuels indus­try, and keep our extreme­ly knowl­edge­able vet­er­an geol­o­gists on the job.

Cas­ca­dia is a high tech hub with many research-focused pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties. We have the means to be a world leader in geo­log­ic haz­ards research and a leader in seis­mic mod­ern­iza­tion projects that save com­mu­ni­ties from being buried by the col­lapse of unsafe infra­struc­ture in a nat­ur­al disaster.

Let’s seize that oppor­tu­ni­ty, and aggres­sive­ly use what­ev­er time we have left before the next event to improve our emer­gency readiness.

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