Earthquakes and Seattle – Improving Our Emergency Plans

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The Council has held a series of briefings and discussions reviewing the disastrous earthquakes in Chile, New Zealand, and Japan over the last few months (an exercise for the reader:  what section of the Pacific Rim has not yet had a major earthquake in recent years?  Hint:  you live there.).

Our goal has been to discover lessons we can learn from the experience of these areas, and to review the current state of our preparedness planning and identify areas that could be improved.  In response, we have funded the next stage of work on upgrading unreinforced masonry buildings and on developing recovery strategies.  We are also continuing to review seismic upgrades to city infrastructure and improving public preparedness.

Seattle has a very good emergency preparedness network and is one of the best-prepared areas of the country for managing the impact of a major earthquake or other disaster.  But it is hard to know how effective these plans will be in a disaster as far-reaching as these major earthquakes have been, and we must be constantly looking for ways to improve our planning and to integrate new ideas that emerge from the experience of others.

Public attention in disasters usually focuses on the immediate effects and efforts to save lives and rescue those in danger.  While this is a critically important task, modern thinking about preparedness for disasters such as earthquakes has expanded the discussion to the concept of ‘resilience’.  It is not enough to simply save lives and take care of the injured:  the goal is to have a system in place that will allow economic and community to return to thriving as quickly, efficiently, and effectively as possible.  The efforts required to cover the full range of addressing the impacts of disasters can be summarized in a four word mantra:  Resist, Absorb, Recover, Adapt.  The goal is to have a physical and social infrastructure in place that can take the expected blows, suffer the least amount of damage, and be prepared to get systems back into operation as the new normal is established.

While we have excellent building codes in Seattle, review of the Japan experience in particular illuminated the differences between our two approaches.  Seattle codes are designed to protect lives; what happens to the buildings is of less significance, as long as the people in them can be protected and escape the building.  Japanese code is evolving towards a different test of effectiveness:  in a nation of frequent earthquakes, their new buildings are designed not just to protect lives, but to sustain minimal structural damage, so that the buildings can be restored quickly.  It’s expensive, but Japan has decided that it is worth it.

While we should review our building codes to consider this approach, we have more urgent code issues that the New Zealand experience illuminates.  The buildings that suffered the most damage and cost the most lives in Christchurch were older buildings that had not been built to modern codes.  Our biggest concern here are unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings – like those in much of Pioneer Square, these are multi-story buildings that are very vulnerable to collapse.  We have already been studying them, and have determined that there are around 800 in Seattle.

Retrofitting them is expensive.  The City’s next steps are to convene stakeholders and consider policy approaches, which could include voluntary guidelines, labeling to warn prospective tenants, mandatory retrofit, zoning incentives for demolition, codes that incentivize façade retention for historic preservation, and tax incentives for retrofit.  Because of the potential costs, the City has moved carefully in its process of developing a specific strategy, and the ultimate solution is likely to be a combination of those measures.  Our review suggests we need to avoid further delay, and the next stage of policy development is funded in the 2012 budget.

Some City infrastructure also needs upgrading to be earthquake resistant.  We are in the final stages of completing the seismic retrofit of all of our fire stations (the irony of having vulnerable fire stations did not escape us when the City planned the 2004 Fire Facilities Levy!).  There are, however, also utility structures that need additional mitigation work, although much progress has been made in those Departments.  The largest area of unfunded seismic retrofit need is in transportation.  While the replacement of the South Park Bridge and Alaskan Way Viaduct takes cares of the two most vulnerable structures in the City, there are a variety of other structures that need seismic work.  The City will have to continue to look for new funding resources.

Recovery planning is the key to resilience.  The City and community must be confident, prepared, skilled, and ready to get to work.  While we have been working to get neighborhood disaster hubs implemented around the City and to educate the public, we must do more if we are going to recover quickly when (not if) the major earthquake hits Seattle.  Working with our Office of Emergency Management, we have identified a set of actions that we should undertake to more fully develop our recovery planning, and the Council has funded a consultant contract to help us move ahead.

In the long run, experience tells us that the biggest barrier to recovery from a disaster is poverty.  Our best long range strategy is to keep strengthening our economy, which will provide the resources to get recovery going, and to help our families get out of poverty so that they have the education and personal resources to fuel their own recovery.  Social resilience pays off in emergency management.  There are so many great reasons to work to reduce poverty, and emergency preparedness is one more to add.