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Washington State Playing Catch Up On Earthquake Safety Of Critical Buildings

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network
Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, left, and Chief Hazards Geologist Corina Forson review earthquake fault maps in Olympia.

More people than ever—1.2 million in Washington state and more than 570,000 in Oregon—are registered to participate in the annual Great ShakeOut earthquake and tsunami drill Thursday morning.

?Not coincidentally, a Washington state agency is using this week to highlight how the Evergreen State needs to play catch up with neighboring states on earthquake preparedness.

Oregon and British Columbia have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade for ongoing programs to reinforce older schools, fire stations and police stations to survive a big earthquake. Washington state can't even say how many older public buildings are at risk, let alone which to prioritize.

"We have over 2,000 schools—K-12 public schools—in Washington and we've done a seismic assessment on 91 of those schools,” said Chief Hazards Geologist Corina Forson at the state Department of Natural Resources. "So we are really far behind in terms of assessing our schools. And then we haven't really even started on some of our other critical facilities."

Forson's agency is asking the governor and legislature to allocate $500,000 per year on an ongoing basis to inventory school seismic risks as well as to better map shallow earthquake faults and complete tsunami evacuation plans.

"For too long, we put it off," said state Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, whose agency houses the state geology division. "If anything, we can take note of the kinds of natural disasters we have seen just this summer across our country and the impacts it has had on people's lives and on the infrastructure and their communities." ?

Franz referenced the dislocations caused by recent hurricanes, the recent earthquake in Mexico and the California wildfires as a wakeup call to better prepare for the Pacific Northwest's own natural hazards. ?

Forson said being proactive now could potentially save billions of dollars and thousands of lives in the event of an earthquake and tsunami. ?

The 2018 Washington Legislature has the final say on whether to increase the agency's budget. There are many competing demands for limited dollars, including a desire among some lawmakers to use surplus revenues to soften an upcoming state property tax increase. ?

Governor Jay Inslee's budget spokesman Ralph Thomas said the administration is looking hard at how to improve earthquake preparedness, but could not immediately commit to particular things.

"We are just now beginning to look at all of the agency budget requests," Thomas said, which were rolling in from every corner of state government on every topic.

This week's DNR budget request is supposed to build on $1.2 million included in the 2017-19 state construction budget. That was allocated to do seismic assessments on 280 of the highest risk school buildings. However, that construction budget stalled indefinitely when it was taken hostage by the Republican-led state Senate in an unsuccessful gambit to compel action from the Democratic-controlled state House on an unrelated rural well permitting issue. ?

Once analysis of seismic risks is complete, a whole new budget debate would need to happen in the Legislature to figure out how to pay for the structural reinforcement of buildings determined to be deficient.

California, Oregon and British Columbia all decided long ago to take an incremental approach to spread the cost over many years.

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.