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.
- 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.
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.