Tales of Two Earthquakes Offer Lessons for the Future

But an inability to change behavior and not just ‘observe’ lessons will lead to catastrophe.

by / February 28, 2011
Seattle's historic Pioneer Square was one of the hardest hit areas during the Feb. 28, 2001, Nisqually earthquake. Photo courtesy of Liz Roll/ FEMA Photo courtesy of Liz Roll/ FEMA

Ideally we learn from experiences and build on successes while trying not to repeat our mistakes. Many times in our after-action reviews and by our behavior, we refer to post-disaster analysis as “lessons learned” when we should refer to them as “lessons observed.”

We are doomed to repeat the mistakes of others and our own if we don’t change our behavior. With that said, it is appropriate to look back at the 10 years since the Nisqually earthquake that hit western Washington and the metro Seattle area on Feb. 28, 2001. Unfortunately we now have another quake on our geological timeline — the recent earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. Although it is just days old, there are lessons to be learned or just observed from that event.

The magnitude 6.8 Nisqually earthquake happened about mid-morning. It was approximately 30 miles deep and 40 miles south of Seattle. There was a long period of shaking. These types of earthquakes have had a recurrence interval of around 25 to 30 years. The impact of it might be considered similar to the first magnitude 7.1 quake that hit in the vicinity of Christchurch in September 2010. There were damages, but nothing significant.

While here in Washington state, seismologists and emergency managers alike hoped that the Nisqually earthquake would be a wake-up call — in reality it was a snooze alarm quake. People did “quake-up” for a moment, then turned off the disaster preparedness and mitigation alarm and went back to sleep. People in downtown Seattle self-evacuated, drove to their children’s schools, picked up the kids and went home. When the FEMA director did show up, there really wasn’t much to show in the way of damages. Another name for the event was the “Chimney Quake” since that seemed to be the primary damage from the shaking.

Some good came out of the aftermath of Nisqually. It was Nisqually that got the King County Council to commit the resources to build a $30 million Regional Communications and Emergency Coordination Center that had been designed, but lacked funding for construction. It was completed and occupied in 2003. Seattle also has a new state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Center that was completed in the last few years.

The only positive action to come out of the Washington state Legislature was passage of the law that authorized the state to join the Emergency Management Assistance Compact. It had been introduced in an earlier session, but was not passed until this event happened during a legislative session. The earthquake provided the emotional impetus to get it passed and signed by the governor.

The quake also shone light on the sorry status of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Now 10 years later and many votes, arguments and citizen initiatives, it is finally on course to be replaced with a deep bore tunnel.

Starbucks headquarters had a real scare from the Nisqually earthquake. Fortunately the company was in a building that had been seismically retrofitted. It was in an area of soft soils and the outcomes could have been much worse without a wise investment in mitigation.

Similarly the $250,000 that was spent to retrofit an unreinforced masonry building that was then serving as the King County Emergency Operations Center saved the county from trying to relocate to an alternate facility in the middle of the response, or worse, digging its Office of Emergency Management staff out of the rubble.

The day was also memorable for me as the director of King County’s Office of Emergency Management. I recall someone coming up to me the same day as the quake and handing me a fax stating that the president had pulled the plug on Project Impact. It was a highly regarded FEMA program that had promoted public-private partnerships in mitigation. In Seattle, the program saved lives the day of the quake at public schools that had water towers removed from their roofs. Even now I shake my head in disbelief that the program was canceled — what an unfortunate coincidence.

There are other lessons not learned from the event. The quake happened during an extremely dry winter for western Washington. Though there was some liquefaction from ground water, it was really minimal when compared to the initial reports of flooding being caused in Christchurch due to liquefaction. While there could have been hundreds if not thousands of landslides during a wet winter, there were only a few slides from Nisqually.

Washington state has still not undertaken the task of identifying all the unreinforced masonry buildings in the state. Conducting such an inventory will provide some risk analysis of how big the issue is in the state. California addressed this issue decades ago and is on a path to correct deficiencies in its building stock. Only Seattle had taken any action to identify the types of buildings most at risk during a quake.

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources has over time decimated its geology department via budget cuts. The position of the geologist who did the liquefaction mapping for the state was eliminated years ago. The newspaper quote I remember him most for is: “This state will not do anything about the earthquake hazard until they are dragging dead bodies out of buildings.” Unfortunately it is a blunt and accurate assessment. In these tough budget times, the ground shaking, damages and deaths from a future quake are far from elected officials’ minds. As one fire marshal once said, “Every line in the fire code is written in blood.” So too it appears that the seismic code will be written in blood. No lessons learned yet.

The second and most recent Christchurch quake is a strong reminder that the return interval for quakes is not always measured in decades; sometimes it can be months. It is assumed that many of the buildings that collapsed were damaged and weakened in the first quake. As we measure how long we have before the next disaster we must remember Christchurch.

Significant earthquakes have happened in the last 12 months in Haiti, Chile and New Zealand. Before that China and Pakistan were countries that experienced major quakes and terrible death tolls. With major portions of the United States at risk, our turn is coming. California is overdue for a quake, and it may not be the state with the epicenter of the next event.

Eric Holdeman Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.

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