Getting ready for the Big One: Washington working to identify vulnerable buildings

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SEATTLE -- Washington state is taking another major step forward in earthquake preparedness, by creating a new tool to help identify vulnerable structures statewide.

The old Cadillac Hotel suffered major damage after the Nisqually quake in 2001. The damage forced the owner to sell, leaving the new owners with a hefty pricetag.

“It was crumbling and falling down, yeah it was a big deal,” said David McClain with Historic Seattle. "Total project cost was over $10 million. The seismic portion of that, direct and indirect costs, probably in the neighborhood of a third and half that.”

This is just one of hundreds of buildings in Seattle forced to repair and upgrade, but there are still hundreds more on the list.

For the past two years, state Rep. Eric Pettigrew has been trying to push for legislation to help retrofit schools and historic buildings in the event of a major disaster.

"Its always my top priority," Pettigrew said. "I'm making sure that disaster preparedness is a part of that dialog, and to kinda help continue to move the ball forward."

This year, our state took a big step toward identifying these buildings. In February, Gov. Jay Inslee secured over $1 million in the capital budget to identify older schools and buildings throughout Washington -- $200,000 of that will go to assess unreinforced masonry buildings, or U.R.M.'s.

"This will probably include all types of buildings, from potentially office buildings to potentially school buildings. but we really don’t know how many unreinforced masonry buildings there are in this state yet," said John Schelling, the emergency director with the Washington Department of Commerce.

The idea is modeled after a list, already created by the city of Seattle, which has identified 1,150 U.R.M.'s that may, or may not, need retrofitting work. Some need more work than others, but the city is now facing a big hurdle: how to fund the fixes.

Groups like Historic Seattle are trying to save these masonry buildings. They have already helped restore and upgrade dozens of structures, but they say if the city starts to mandate retrofitting changes, it will force some owners to sell to avoid the high costs.

"Everybody shares the same goal of wanting to enhance the life safety of these buildings," said McClain. “We’re losing important pieces of the city’s history, a once those places are gone, they’re gone, and there’s no getting them back.”

Statewide, we are still in the early stages of this plan, and while its a good start, the new plan may not go far enough to help fix the growing problem.

“The $200,000 won’t be enough to create a detailed, validated assessment, but it will give us as sense of the scope of the issue, so that it can better inform next steps," said Schelling.

Pettigrew is a former emergency manager in Seattle, and he says he’s happy this is getting attention, but it's just a small part of what needs to be done to get us ready for the big one.

"I think more and more, the Legislature is recognizing that this is a very strong possibility, we are biding our time," said Pettigrew. "It's just a matter of time before a big one hits in the Northwest and we want to be as prepared as we possibly can be."

Washington state is taking bids for contractors to help create a list of U.R.M.'s. The bids are due Friday, May 11th, and they hope to have a complete list by December.

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