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Northwest States Reluctant To Force Retrofits For Buildings That Could Kill In Big Quake

Liz Roll
Historic brick buildings in Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood suffered extensive damage from the 2001 Nisqually earthquake.

Last week’s earthquake in Mexico provided another reminder about the risks of poorly reinforced buildings. According to government studies, there are literally thousands of older brick and concrete buildings in Oregon and Washington that could collapse in a strong earthquake.

Seismic retrofits would likely save lives—maybe even yours. But until now city and state governments in the Northwest have been reluctant to require that of property owners.

The focus here is on brick or stone buildings built before 1945, roughly speaking. The construction style is called unreinforced masonry (URM). This category of earthquake-vulnerable structures includes thousands of schools, churches and apartment buildings.

The risk of ‘killer buildings’

Consultant and former King County Emergency Management director Eric Holdeman said buildings like that are all over the Northwest in the historic core of cities—large and small.

"These are the buildings, as we've seen in Mexico most recently, that are in high danger of collapsing and killing people or severely injuring them,” Holdeman said. “We've got a tremendous risk."

Going back decades, earthquake task forces in Oregon and Washington have issued reports calling for seismic rehab of vulnerable older buildings. Holdeman is dismayed his state hasn’t done a statewide inventory of these and is “dawdling” on making owners fix them.

"This isn't going to be done overnight, but the sooner you start the sooner we create a better, safe environment -- life safety,” Holdeman said. “We're not talking about just well, it might not be that bad. We're talking about killer buildings.”

Credit Kevin Galvin / FEMA News
File photo of cars in a Seattle parking lot that were crushed by falling debris in the wake of the 2001 Nisqually earthquake.

A survey by the City of Portland published last year identified roughly 1,600-1,800 seismically-vulnerable unreinforced masonry buildings inside the city limits including dozens of schools, churches and large apartment buildings. ?

There are more than 1,100 URM buildings in the City of Seattle according to the city's Department of Construction and Inspections. That inventory included lots of affordable housing, which is increasingly precious in the booming metropolis. ?

If a building owner undertakes a major remodel or changes the primary use of an old building, current codes in Oregon and Washington state require seismic vulnerabilities be addressed at that time.

Should retrofits be prioritized?

Now along comes another report that restates the risk and solution. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday received a lengthy set of recommendations from state agency leaders for how to better prepare for a massive earthquake and tsunami.

In Chapter 3, a familiar refrain: "Develop a mandatory building retrofit code," including enforcement and financing options for building owners. But it's assigned a lower priority, something to get to in five or 10 years.

"I think we should start sooner and I'm very concerned about the unreinforced masonry buildings that we have,” said Major General Bret Daugherty, the head of the Washington National Guard.

Why delay taking action? Daugherty said a lack of funding from the state Legislature is part of it. He also noted the rarity of catastrophic earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest contributes to complacency.

Daugherty participated in the Resilient Washington Subcabinet, which authored this latest report and recommendations at Inslee’s behest.

"You know, Gov. (Christine) Gregoire used to tell us, 'Never waste a good disaster.' The Californians did not. They took advantage of that terrible experience to come out stronger,” Daugherty said. “We have some moderate shakes here in the state of Washington but we have not had a major earthquake here."

The last 9.0 Cascadia megaquake struck in 1700.

Paying for spendy seismic upgrades

There's broad agreement that retrofits save lives, but they can be costly to perform and hard to finance. The job often involves tying together walls, floors and roofs and bracing cornices and parapets to prevent the raining of bricks and stones onto the sidewalk below. ?

Attorney Walter McMonies owns several vintage apartment buildings in Portland and sits on a city seismic policy committee. He described pushback from some building owners.

"On the one hand, the city wants us to do these retrofits,” McMonies said. “The normal way that you would pay for something expensive like that that the government makes you do is you raise your rents if you're a landowner. It looks like we're kind of between a rock and a hard place because they won't be very gracious about us raising our rents."

Credit Walter McMonies
The owner of this 36-unit apartment building in Northwest Portland named Trinity Place voluntarily spent $1.3 million on seismic reinforcements recently, some of which he'll get back through tax credits.

McMonies voluntarily completed a $1.3 million seismic upgrade recently of a brick apartment building his family owns with the help of historic preservation tax breaks.

In Portland, much more so than in Seattle, building owners have organized to advocate for their interests on earthquake code issues. McMonies lobbied the state Legislature through a group called Masonry Building Owners of Oregon. ?

A separate group called "Save Portland Buildings" has organized an online petition to scale back the proposed retrofit requirement so that it doesn't result in unintended consequences such as eviction of tenants, closure of businesses and demolitions of beloved buildings. ?

"Many are worth less than the estimated retrofit costs. Many are not feasible," reads the group's online manifesto. "One demolition forced by government is one too many.”

Portland and Seattle look to be in a slow race to see which succeeds first in making reinforcement of risky old buildings mandatory. The Portland City Council is scheduled to take up this issue in mid-October. They’ll be looking at a proposal to provide some kind of public assistance in exchange for requiring owners to retrofit vulnerable buildings.

A similar recommendation is on its way to the Seattle City Council for briefing later in the fall. Still unclear is if the political will to pass such a requirement exists. ?

Earlier this year, the Oregon Legislature gave cities and counties permission—if they so choose—to exempt owners of old buildings from local property taxes to mitigate the cost of seismic retrofits.

The Washington Legislature considered but did not pass a proposed two-year, $10 million pilot program to provide loans and grants for safety upgrades to historic buildings

?The California Legislature long ago set into motion requirements for building owners to retrofit older buildings to survive big earthquakes. By 2010, some 134 jurisdictions had mandatory retrofit ordinances. The City of Los Angeles after much hand-wringing joined the crowd in 2015.  ?

Ever wonder what the predicted Cascadia earthquake will feel like where you live? Click here and enter your zip code if you live in Oregon.  ?For Washington residents, click here and enter your address

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.