20 Years After the Nisqually Earthquake, Are We Better Prepared for the Big One?


The last time the ground shook in a big way in Washington was 20 years ago, and here are a few things that happened:

—The tower at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport twisted and buckled, shattering windows as an air traffic controller warned off approaching planes.

—In Seattle's Pioneer Square, brick walls and parapets peeled away from centuries-old buildings, flattening cars and clogging roads with tons of debris.

—State workers cowered under tables as massive light fixtures crashed down and the Capitol dome twisted on its base.

—A churning mass of mud and trees roared off a hillside south of Seattle, bulldozing a house and briefly blocking the Cedar River.

With a magnitude of 6.8, the Nisqually earthquake of Feb. 28, 2001, was the most powerful quake to strike the state in a generation. But for all its scattered dramas — and at least $2 billion in damage — it was a mild demonstration of the seismic forces that threaten the Pacific Northwest. Only one person died — from a heart attack. Most residents' routines were back to normal within a day or two.

"I call it the fender-bender earthquake," said Eric Holdeman, who was King County's emergency management director that sunny, winter morning. "The other types of earthquakes we face — from the Seattle Fault or the Cascadia Subduction Zone — those are the head-on collision, rollover accidents."

That Washington ranks second in earthquake risk behind California might be surprising to some of the million-plus people who have swelled the Puget Sound region's population since 2001. Holdeman recalls breaking the news to his church's new pastor, who relocated from Chicago.

Anyone who experienced the Nisqually quake isn't likely to forget it — but collective memory fades fast along with any sense of urgency about making the region more earthquake resilient, said Jim Mullen, who was chief of Seattle emergency management in 2001 and went on to lead the state's program.

"We dodged a bullet, but it's more like a Sidewinder missile," he said. "It might miss you once, but it peels around and comes back."

Washington has a long history of inaction on seismic preparedness, commissioning study after study, then filing them away to gather dust. The challenges can seem overwhelming, given that a magnitude 9 Cascadia megaquake and tsunami could be the biggest natural disaster the country has ever experienced.

But emergency managers say the state has made significant progress in the past two decades through initiatives both major and modest.

"While there is certainly a lot more we can do, we are making steady and continuous improvement," said Amanda Siok, who leads the Federal Emergency Management Agency's regional earthquake program.

In one small example from her own life, the old brick school building in Snohomish where she rode out the Nisqually quake in ninth grade has since been demolished and replaced with a modern structure.

The rickety Alaskan Way Viaduct is also gone, with a seismically robust tunnel now carrying traffic through downtown Seattle. Harborview Medical Center, the state's premier trauma hospital, completed nearly $200 million worth of much-needed retrofits and Seattle's crumbling Elliott Bay seawall was rebuilt at a cost of $1 billion.

With funding from a 2003 levy, Seattle built a new emergency operations center and retrofitted or replaced most of the city's fire stations. Another levy three years later paid for seismic upgrades to a dozen bridges, and several more projects are in the works.

Starting in May, Washington residents will be able to get warnings on their cellphones tens of seconds, or even a minute, before strong ground motion via the ShakeAlert System developed by the U.S. Geological Survey. That might not sound like much, but scientists say it will give people time to duck and cover and allow utilities and industries to automatically shut down processes or close valves to reduce damage.

"There has been some really comprehensive work done in both infrastructure and in training and planning and exercises," said Seattle Emergency Management Director Curry Mayer. "Is it perfect? No. Any jurisdiction that tells you they are totally prepared is just lying."

Other major areas of progress — and persistent problems — include:


In Centralia, 300 kids attend Edison Elementary School — an unreinforced masonry building that dates to the early 1900s. It's one of hundreds of public school buildings in Western Washington constructed before modern seismic codes. Many were made with poorly reinforced concrete that can pancake in an earthquake. Others sit in the path of tsunamis.

Wealthy districts like Seattle, where residents approve every levy and bond measure, have already upgraded most seismically vulnerable schools. But small communities like Centralia can't afford it, leaving children at risk.

"It weighs on you," said district superintendent Lisa Grant. "We want kids to come to school and be safe."

A survey of schools by the Washington Department of Natural Resources found that more than half of those in seismically active areas would experience significant damage in an earthquake. The study spurred the Legislature to allocate $13.2 million last year to fix a handful of the most high-risk buildings, Edison Elementary among them.

The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction estimates it could cost as much as $3 billion to fix all of the state's potentially dangerous school buildings. That's clearly too much to tackle at once, said Tyler Muench, of OSPI. So the agency is asking the Legislature to start addressing the problem in a systematic way by providing $25 million a year for upgrades starting with the next biennium.

California, Oregon and British Columbia have all taken aggressive steps to make their schools earthquake safe, leaving Washington as the only West Coast jurisdiction that hasn't even assessed its statewide risk.

"We are the furthest behind," Muench said. "We have a lot of ground to cover."


If Robert Ezelle, the state's top emergency manager, could snap his fingers and upgrade one part of Washington's infrastructure, it would be roads and bridges. A major drill five years ago that simulated a worst-case Cascadia Subduction Zone quake underscored the problem clearly: With thousands of bridges assumed damaged, it was nearly impossible to move equipment and people.

"If you can't get supplies flowing into the state, we're going to be in a very difficult situation," Ezelle said.

It's a problem the Washington State Department of Transportation has been chipping away at since the early 1990s, upgrading more than 500 bridges. The bad news is that more than 500 bridges are still on the to-do list, with an estimated price tag of $1.5 billion.

The agency is now focused on completing seismically hardened lifeline routes to connect the Puget Sound region to airfields at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Paine Field and Moses Lake east of the Cascades. Many parts of the route have already been upgraded, including a major bridge replacement project on I-5 in Tacoma. With $171 million appropriated by the Legislature, WSDOT hopes to strengthen all the remaining weak spots within 10 years, said state bridge engineer Mark Gaines.


Seattle's recent construction boom shifted the age distribution of the city's high-rises, which is a good thing from an earthquake perspective, Holdeman said. Newer buildings must meet newer seismic codes — including a recent local revision to account for growing evidence that the geologic basin under Seattle can amplify seismic waves.

But when it comes to unreinforced brick buildings, the state remains stalled. Seattle alone has about 1,000 of the dangerous structures, but despite multiple efforts to mandate retrofits, has done nothing but tally the number.

The city had planned to draft legislation this year, but was derailed by the coronavirus pandemic, a spokesman said. Retrofits are expensive and could displace low-income residents and lead to the demolition of historic buildings, said Mayer, adding that there's no easy solution in sight.

But there is at least one reassuring note for private homeowners: Wood-framed houses are often able to ride out ground shaking with little damage because they are so flexible.

Water utilities

One indication of the advanced age of many water systems in Washington is that it's only been a few years since the city of Seattle replaced its last remaining segments of wooden pipe. The city has spent about $100 million over the past several decades to strengthen storage tanks, pipelines, pump stations and reservoirs, with $150 million in additional improvements in the planning stage.

The stakes are clear: A 2018 analysis found it could take two months to restore water across the city after a major earthquake and estimated the total cost of critical upgrades at $850 million.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is spearheading a vulnerability analysis of water and sewer systems across Puget Sound. There's no money to fix problems yet, Ezelle said, but identifying the weak spots is a first step.


Next month will mark the 10th anniversary of Japan's deadly 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and anyone who watched the horrifying videos knows the only safe place is well above the water level. With 30-foot-tall tsunamis from a Cascadia quake projected to hit parts of Washington's Pacific coast within half an hour, residents in communities without nearby hills would have little hope.

Their best option could be man-made high ground.

The country's first tsunami refuge was completed in 2016 at Ocosta Elementary — a small school near Westport. Administrators piggybacked the project on construction of a gym fortified against ground shaking and surging water and with room on its roof for a thousand people to take shelter.

The city of Westport hopes to build a second "vertical evacuation" structure if it can secure FEMA funding. The agency has already committed $2.2 million to help the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe build a 50-foot-tall tower in Tokeland where nearly 400 people could escape the waves, said Siok, the FEMA earthquake specialist.

The seeds for creating tsunami refuges in Washington were planted a decade ago in a course she participated in at the University of Washington, Siok recalled. Students organized community meetings and helped residents brainstorm the options. Now those seeds are beginning to sprout.

"These things can take a long time," Siok said. "But there's a lot we can do. We just need to keep working."

Seattle Times columnist Gene Balk contributed to this report, which also includes material from Seattle Times archives.


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