Is the Pacific Northwest prepared for the Big One?

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SEATTLE - It’s been 15 years since the 6.8 Nisqually earthquake rocked the Pacific Northwest. Seismologists are now saying the region could be hit by a 9.0 magnitude quake, which would be two thousand times more powerful.

Donna Moyer just started working at The Estates Wine Room in Pioneer Square a few months ago, and she’s a big fan of the neighborhood.

“I love it here, I love all the brick,” she says.

But Moyer knows that if a large earthquake hit, Pioneer Square might not be the safest place to be.

“I would say the old school area is definitely more vulnerable than uptown where there’s newer buildings that have been retrofitted. But I wouldn’t say it’s something that I think about as a worry every day.”

But maybe it should be. According to The Seattle Times, geologists have discovered dozens of new faults in the Pacific Northwest over the past two decades. There’s the potential for an earthquake much stronger than the one in 2001.

“Nisqually was a fairly mild earthquake,” says John Vidale, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network. “We have big earthquakes here, they’re rare. But they could do a lot worse than Nisqually did.”

Seismologists like Vidale say Washington state hasn’t strengthened its building codes the way other earthquake-prone states like California have. In the Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle, there are still dozens of unreinforced buildings that could be vulnerable in a quake.

“I don’t worry much walking around them,” he says. “I would worry if I worked in the buildings or was living in the buildings.”

Vidale knows requiring buildings to be retrofitted would be expensive, and there’s no consensus on who would pay for that. But he says preparation needs to be a priority.

“Sooner or later these earthquakes are going to happen, and we don’t really need to take risks that we could avoid.”

Moyer hopes there isn’t a big quake anytime soon. But she’s made sure that everything in their wine room has been anchored to the walls, just in case.

“I just know you do what you can, you have your strategy if something happens, and then you just go on with your life.”

FEMA says disaster preparedness is one of their top priorities. Next month, they’ll be hosting a regionwide drill to see how emergency responders in the northwest would handle a mock earthquake and tsunami.

For more on the Seattle Times investigation into Seismic Neglect, click here.