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News >  WA Government

State studying priorities to prepare for killer quake

A member of the Washington Army National Guard 792nd Chemical Company from Grandview, Wash., demonstrates a decontamination station, Wednesday, June 8, 2016, in Port Angeles, Wash. The exercise was part of a massive earthquake and tsunami drill called Cascadia Rising, that is built around the premise of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake 95 miles off of the coast of Oregon that results in a tsunami. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
A member of the Washington Army National Guard 792nd Chemical Company from Grandview, Wash., demonstrates a decontamination station, Wednesday, June 8, 2016, in Port Angeles, Wash. The exercise was part of a massive earthquake and tsunami drill called Cascadia Rising, that is built around the premise of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake 95 miles off of the coast of Oregon that results in a tsunami. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Washington will spend about $1.4 million in the next 15 months to start determining the top priorities for protecting institutions and buildings against a major earthquake or tsunami.

They are looming catastrophes the state can anticipate, but not predict.

Or as Gov. Jay Inslee put it Wednesday during a meeting of state and local officials, it’s something you know is going to happen sometime: “It’s like the Mariners winning the World Series. You just don’t know what year it’s going to be.”

Historically, the Cascadia Subduction Zone of the Pacific Coast has had a catastrophic quake every 200 to 600 years, and the last one was 318 years ago.

“That puts us right in the middle of the window,” said Robert Ezelle, director of the state Emergency Management Division.

The state’s entire Pacific Coast, which has about 200,000 people during the tourist season, is a tsunami zone, he said. It also has schools on the lowlands that aren’t built with shelters to be above the waves, and would be difficult to evacuate to higher ground.

A Cascadia quake of 9.0 magnitude, and the following tsunami, would likely do the most damage. It’s estimated at $49 billion in Washington alone, Ezelle said, with recovery taking years.

But other geologic faults on both sides of the state have the potential for significant destruction, particularly for buildings that aren’t built to current standards. Those faults pose a significant risk too, Ezelle said. Over the next 50 years, there’s an 80 percent chance of a destructive quake in one of those faults, compared with a 10 to 20 percent probability of a Cascadia Subduction Zone quake.

Among the buildings most at risk would be unreinforced masonry buildings, or URMs, where ceilings and floors can collapse and the exteriors could fall on pedestrians or into the street, blocking traffic. An estimated 185,000 buildings could be vulnerable, including many historic buildings throughout the state that haven’t been updated.

Again, schools are a problem.

The state has 200 school buildings within a mile of a geologic fault, said Corina Forson, chief hazard geologist for the Department of Natural Resources. It has 214 in high to moderate liquefaction zones, where the ground can “liquefy” in the tremors of a major quake.

The money from the capital budget is going to fix those problems. Retrofitting a single school can cost millions of dollars, said Alicia Henderson, superintendent of the Aberdeen School District. Her district has several schools in the tsunami zone.

The $1.4 million will be spent to understand the scope of the problem and set priorities for where the state can best spend money in the future to prepare for quakes that will come sometime.

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