After Nisqually quake, need to shore up buildings persists

Feb 27, 2011

Seattle Times staff reporter


Ten years after the Nisqually earthquake delivered a gut punch to our complacency, we've repaired the damage, built fire stations that won't collapse, made freeway bridges more robust, and strengthened a courthouse and the region's major trauma hospital.

Yet thousands of homes, offices, apartments, shops and hospitals have yet to be bolstered, and for many emergency planners, progress has been agonizingly slow.

There's no mystery about what needs to be done. What's lacking is money, a sense of urgency and a carrot or a stick to motivate private property owners.

Experts point to last week's deadly quake in New Zealand as a reminder of what could happen here.

A quake on the Seattle Fault would bring a similar type of shaking — and quite likely more powerful — along a line that slices through Seattle, Mercer Island and Bellevue, beneath a mix of old and new structures.

"That dated construction is what we're principally worried about," said MRP Engineering President Mark Pierepiekarz, who co-authored a 2005 report on the probable effects of a shallow, magnitude 6.7 quake.

For brick structures that haven't been reinforced since they were built decades ago, damage "can be catastrophic," Pierepiekarz said. But because seismic reinforcement is expensive, most property owners aren't doing it unless they are remodeling a building.

Public agencies also are struggling to pay for improvements. In two of the most noteworthy cases — the need to replace the vulnerable Alaskan Way Viaduct and Highway 520 floating bridge — work is just getting started after years of planning and debate.

The Puget Sound region is better prepared today than it was on Feb. 28, 2001, when an earthquake injured 320 people and caused up to $4 billion damage to buildings, roads and airports.

Because the Nisqually quake occurred deep underground and miles from Seattle, it packed far less of a wallop than two other scenarios that have come before and will come again: a much more powerful "megaquake," where tectonic plates meet, or a shallow quake on the Seattle Fault.

Either kind of event could shake the ground hard enough to demolish unreinforced brick buildings, concrete tilt-up warehouses and office buildings, older multistory concrete structures without adequate steel rebar — and, in the controversial view of one prominent engineer, downtown towers built to current standards.

"Too often in our Pacific Northwest mindset, because we've been through something like the Nisqually earthquake, we think we know what it's like to go through a big earthquake. That's false security," said Seattle Emergency Management Director Barb Graff.

When a 2005 analysis sponsored by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute and the state Emergency Management Division studied what would happen in a shallow Seattle Fault quake, it projected 1,660 deaths, 24,000 injuries, 9,700 buildings destroyed and $33 billion in property damage.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct would partially or completely collapse, some pre-1941 midrise buildings could collapse, and three-quarters of King County's hospital beds could be knocked out of commission for days or weeks, the experts concluded.

Fortunately, seismic upgrades have been made, along with repairs of Nisqually quake damage, by public and private owners of landmark properties.

The King County Courthouse and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport control tower, for example, were brought up to current standards. The state Capitol, whose sandstone columns shifted perilously in 2001, got a seismic overhaul.

Harborview Medical Center was made quake-resistant through a bond issue approved by voters before Nisqually, while area public schools — which mostly avoided severe damage thanks to voter-approved upgrades — are continuing to make improvements.

Some of the more heavily damaged private properties, including the Compass Center, Cadillac Hotel and Seattle Hebrew Academy, also were repaired and upgraded.

Slow, steady progress

The state Department of Transportation has made slow, steady progress upgrading bridges since the disastrous collapse in 1989 of a double-deck viaduct on the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland, Calif. But even with the 2005 gas tax providing $38 million this biennium, the job won't be done until about 2070.

In the first five years after the quake, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Small Business Administration and Federal Highway Administration provided $334 million for rebuilding and retrofitting.

Beyond buildings and roads, officials are also working to protect coastal residents from tsunamis. With the help of the state and the University of Washington, counties are developing "vertical evacuation" plans for tsunamis that don't leave enough time for conventional evacuation by vehicles.

Pacific County has developed a plan — with no funding yet — to build 13 berms, five towers and two parking garages where people can ride out a 22-foot-high killer wave. Although there should be 40 minutes warning of a locally triggered tsunami, the plan locates facilities so people could reach them on foot within 15 minutes.

"This is really cutting-edge stuff. This is one of the most exciting projects I've worked with in my entire career," said the state's earthquake program manager, John Schelling.

Engineers know how to strengthen 800 unreinforced brick buildings concentrated largely in Pioneer Square, the Central Area and the University District. Two-thirds of the buildings closed at least temporarily after the 2001 earthquake were brick.

Shaking money loose

Bringing them up to code would cost a lot: $25 to $60 per square foot, according to 2008 city figures. That's more than most property owners are prepared to spend, unless they're doing a larger remodel, Seattle planning officials say.

After the quake, Seattle formed committees to investigate whether owners of brick should be required to bring them up to current seismic standards, as many California cities have done.

The effort stalled.

Tax incentives were considered along with the possible use of police powers.

But committee participant Bob Freitag said, "We didn't have the money to defer taxes and we felt we couldn't put additional burdens on property owners when people can't afford electricity for heat."

Nor has Seattle or the Port of Seattle rebuilt sea walls to prevent parts of the central waterfront and Harbor Island from sliding into the water during a quake.

The city is planning an estimated $300 million replacement of the central waterfront sea wall, with funds potentially coming from the Army Corps of Engineers, King County Flood District and city taxes.

Although the Port seismically strengthened Terminal 91 for cruise ships, it doesn't have a plan to prevent underwater landslides at its container-shipping terminals.

Dakota Chamberlain, director of seaport project management, said he wasn't aware of the 2005 Seattle Fault study that said a slide could put parts of the Port out of business for months.

The same study warned of possible collapses of some pre-1941 buildings of up to 15 stories and eight-to-40-story buildings built between 1941 and 1974. High-rises built after 1975 "should survive," the authors said.

But Peter Yanev, an Orinda, Calif., structural engineer and earthquake consultant, upset many colleagues with an op-ed piece in The New York Times last year arguing that modern skyscrapers in Seattle could suffer severe damage or collapse in a megaquake.

"The buildings in Seattle, no matter what an engineer says, are not designed for a magnitude 9 earthquake, period. If we have an earthquake like Chile, yes, I expect collapses," Yanev said in an interview. Yanev lacks the faith of many of his engineering colleagues in the safety of towers built around a central core and lacking what he considers a sufficient number of walls or other structural "redundancy."

Stacy Bartoletti, president and chief executive officer of Degenkolb Engineers, said he expects to see "significant damage" to some towers, "but we will definitely not see collapse of a major high-rise or all of our high-rises in Seattle. The question in my mind is how many of our high-rises will be unusable after an earthquake and how long will it take to make them usable."

Instead of worrying about downtown towers, say Bartoletti and Pierepiekarz, safety efforts should focus first on a universally recognized danger: older brick and concrete buildings that are subject to life-threatening damage or collapse.

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Sound Seismic7543 15th Avenue NW, Seattle, WA 98117

Mary Ellen and I are both extremely pleased with the work that your crew did.  Please pass on my personal "thank you" to each of them. 

We were pleased with the amount of clean-up that was done at the end of each day. 

Even with your discovery of unforeseen conditions that necessitated additional framing, it was still done within a very reasonable time-frame.  My overall experience with Sound Seismic has been very positive and we will recommend your services to our circle of friends and family.

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Mark and Mary Ellen Whitesell, Ballard, Seattle



I wish to praise SOUND SEISMIC for the earthquake retrofit they completed on my home. From the estimate to the finished job, Leif and his crew were professional, hard working, pleasant and exceptionally CLEAN. They handled the permit and inspections seamlessly. Office support from Elizabeth was equally professional, reliable and fast. I can't describe everything so I'll just say the whole experience was great.

Kristin Hill, Wallingford, Seattle



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Sarah Morken


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Emily Elliott, Queen Anne


The crew kept me informed of their progress and plans all the time.  They told me what their plans were, and delivered every time.  Very satisfying knowing I could count on them doing what they promised - when they promised it!

Martin Muller, Olympic Manor, Seattle



My experience with Sound Seismic was very good. They were upfront about the work that needed to be done, about the cost and about the specific changes that would be required. In general, they had a high level of professionalism. They were on schedule, did a good job and cleaned up afterwards. They actually returned calls, which seems to be rare with contractors. I haven’t had other work of this sort done before. They did a really good job overall. They were very good about scheduling and estimates, and did quality work. They were one of the few providers in the area who would do the work - I thought the price was reasonable. I would use them again in the future.
Karl Bystrom


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Andrew Austin, Phinney Ridge


The Sound Seismic crew arrived on time and got started on this structurally engineered and contracted job. It was estimated to take approximately one week to complete this work. The job was completed in 4 days with great professionalism and dedication to the work completed. The work passed a city inspection with no additional work required. The quality of work is excellent with great attention to detail.

Leon Young


Based in Ballard, the 2 man crew of Sound Seismic did a very clean, professional job of installing the earthquake retrofit. I was very happy with quality of the work and the way the crew kept the site clean and organized every day. They stick to a firm 8-hour work day for their employees and offer health benefits, a rarity in the contract world, it would seem. So their bid was not the lowest, however was comparable to a number of other firms, within 5-10%. Very punctual and professional in all coordination and in handling the 2 inspections reqd. by the city. No surprises or additional costs. I would recommend this contractor overall.

Jennifer Dovey, Broadview, Seattle



Sound Seismic did such a thorough job. Looking at their work lets me sleep better at night knowing my house is now very unlikely to shift off its foundations in an earthquake.

P. Kiraly, Madrona, Seattle



We thank you for the very professional work done by all of your people that we have had contact with.  The crew working here were outstanding, and we were charmed by your lead carpenter, Matt. 

Our basement has not been this clean in 70 years (the house is 70 years old)!

Thanks again,

the Pearsons

Bryant neighborhood, Seattle



We had a wonderful experience with Sound Seismic.  After the devastating earthquake in Japan my husband and I were quite worried about our 3 story brick home and decided to retrofit our basement as a way to ease our anxiety and protect our family.  

Sound Seismic's estimate was more reasonable than any of the others we got and we felt very confident knowing that Leif and his team have done many retrofits, including our friend's basement.  Leif was able to explain the process to me, answer my questions, and gave me the estimate within an hour of coming to the house.  

The hardest part of the process was moving our furniture and boxes out of the way to prepare the basement - after that things just moved along smoothly.  I had been expecting huge holes in the walls and dust everywhere but the work was really tidy and not nearly as disruptive as I had feared.  My kids and I were able to stay in the house the whole time, only playing out in the backyard a couple times when the banging was loud.  The baby was even able to take naps in the midst of the demolition!  

Matt was very professional and friendly, he always arrived on time and he communicated well, checking in with us at the end of each day to show us the progress of the work.  He was able to finish the work a half-day sooner than planned and there were no hidden costs or extra changes when the invoice arrived.  

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Rachel Opel, Ballard, Seattle




Thanks for the great work on the house - you've done an outstanding job of prompt, low-impact work - and leaving the job site in excellent shape. Appreciate the attention to detail."


Wayne Dodge, Ravenna, Seattle


"I wanted to follow up and thank you for your good communication, strong planning and flexibility.

Your foreman was great. Very professional, low key, friendly and efficient."


Urs Koenig, Madrona, Seattle

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George Murphy, Northgate, Seattle

Sound Seismic gave a very competitive bid, clearly explained everything they were going to do, accomodated my schedule, and produced a very high quality outcome.  I highly recommend them.

Gary Johnson, Wallingford, Seattle



Dear Leif,

Your crew did a great job!  It was a pleasure to meet them. And as soon as I met your lead carpenter, I knew that everything would be done 'right.' 

They took extra care at every level: and left everything better than ever.  They were able to remove the siding without cutting it, which is great, too.

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I am very happy with all aspects of the plan and the work, Leif.  


David Rosenbaum, Sand Point, Seattle



All in all, we felt the project went extremely well.  Given the number of earthquakes worldwide of late, we are pleased to have had the work done.  We’d rather not have it tested, but we know we are in as good a position as possible if the ground starts shaking!

Barbara E., Capital Hill, Seattle



I wanted to let you know what a great job that your crew did on our earthquake retrofit.  They were very knowledgeable about the whole process and answered any questions we had without hesitation. Their work was excellent and they finished the job quickly.  I have done my share of remodeling in the past and I can say that they cleaned up after each day’s work more thoroughly than anyone I’ve ever encountered.  They took obvious pride in the retrofit work they did but also in the cleanup. They saw that as an integral part of the Sound Seismic service.  All in all, it was a fast and painless experience.


Thanks for assigning those fine young men to our job.


Paul Gustie, Fremont



Sound Seismic performed an engineered retrofit on our house built in 1928.  I've never had a better experience working with a contractor - thoroughly professional (truly experienced and knowledgeable in their craft), they were also excellent communicators throughout the engagement.  And the cleanup afterwards was amazing.  I would recommend them without reservation!

George Murphy, Northgate, Seattle



I wanted to thank you for the wonderful job you did retrofitting my home in South Seattle. I was aware that it would be a challenge and it proved to offer more problems than we expected. You met them all and did a great job correcting the rot and damage that happened over the years since 1927, when the house was built.


When I arrived home yesterday the basement was clean and organized. It was the first time I did not have to spend hours cleaning up after a contractor. Your lead carpenter and his assistant were a great team. Thanks for all your efforts.



Patrick Murphy, Mount Baker



I can't think of a single way you could improve the service of your company.  Yours is one of the VERY best companies I've worked with on this home.

Jeannie Macri, West Seattle



Sound Seismic completed a earthquake retrofit on our house. Their explanation about what to expect and what we'd get was clear and straightforward; the work was completed as described, as scheduled and exactly on time; clean-up: spotless.


Harriet B., Ballard



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Jesse Lee Honor, Project Manager, Northwest Homecrafters



Thank you very much for your excellent work on retrofitting our house.  We appreciated your careful oversight of the project, ongoing contact with the engineering firm, attention to detail, and clean and timely work.  You really rose to the challenges presented by "this old house."

Mike E., Capital Hill, Seattle



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Linda and Rick T. Kirkland, WA



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Stuart Jamieson, Montlake



Sound Seismic did an excellent job of the seismic retrofit on my two-story house, which entailed quite a lot of siding work as I don't have a basement. The workmen were punctual, neat and meticulous. I feel safer because of their work.

Pippa Kiraly., Madrona



Just wanted to send you a note to express how pleased we are with the work your firm recently completed.  You did exactly what you said you would and the quality of the work is first rate.  Also, please tell Matt how much we enjoyed him.  Thanks,

Gary Johnson, Wallingford



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