Seattle’s Old Buildings Unfit to Withstand Earthquake. Now What?

Should the city push harder to demand retrofitting?

(Photo by Daniel Schwen)

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As cities across the U.S. concentrate on a future of resilience, Seattle is trying to figure out how it will handle the retrofitting of many of its brick structures that, if an earthquake hit, would crumble and likely cause many deaths. Many are calling for changes to be made before disaster strikes.

“The sad thing is, I can tell you absolutely that immediately following the next big earthquake, after these old buildings fall down, there will be legislation passed to address this issue,” Eric Holdeman, former director of King County’s Office of Emergency Management, told the Seattle Times. “We shouldn’t have to wait for a lot of people to be killed or injured to motivate us to take action.”

The question isn’t whether or not these buildings are unsafe, it’s about who will pay for resilience. According to the Times, retrofitting an old “four-story, 20,000-square-foot apartment complex … means a bill between $400,000 and $1.2 million.”

Seattle’s not alone. While San Francisco has had success with earthquake resilience when it comes to big infrastructure, the Northern California city has struggled with enforcing safety codes for smaller, older, mostly residential buildings thanks to high retrofitting costs.

Urgency in Seattle was heightened thanks to a recent New Yorker article that envisioned a doomsday scenario if a large quake does hit the Pacific Northwest. But even if Seattle does decide to make a change, and even if they expedite the process, it will still be lengthy and would not even begin until 2018.

With other issues, like affordable housing, on the table too, the Times reports that city council is unlikely to pass an ordinance on retrofitting right now.

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Jenn Stanley is a freelance journalist, essayist and independent producer living in Chicago. She has an M.S. from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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Tags: resilient citiesseattledisaster planninghistoric preservation

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