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When a 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck Seattle and the Pacific Northwest area on February 28, 2001, damage was held to a minimum, thanks to a decade of earthquake preparation and a fault located deep inside the Earth. The earthquake struck at 10:55 a.m. and was the worst to hit the area in more than 50 years.

The earthquake crumbled some buildings, buckled sidewalks and injured nearly 400 people. Officials estimate damage will exceed $2 billion dollars, but experts say the total could have been much worse if it weren’t for the depth of the fault and the efforts made by area officials to prepare for quakes.

The earthquake occurred on a fault located about 33 miles underground - a fact that saved the region from intense damage. According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s hazards team, the temblor’s energy had to travel 30 miles in every direction from its point of origin before it hit the surface. The epicenter was located about 35 miles southwest of Seattle and 11 miles northeast of the state capital, Olympia.

The quake was very near the location of a magnitude 7.1 earthquake that occurred in 1949 and a magnitude 6.5 tremor that hit in 1965. In terms of energy released, the 2001 quake was only about one-third as strong as the 1949 quake.

Earthquake magnitudes are calculated according to ground motion recorded on seismographs. An increase in one full number - from 6.5 to 7.5 for example - means the quake’s magnitude is 10 times as great.

Experts have said the quake’s depth spared the Northwest catastrophic damage. Earthquakes that occur on faults closer to the earth’s surface have a much greater potential for damage. For example, the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake (often referred to as the Northridge quake), with a magnitude of 6.7, caused an estimated $40 billion in damage and killed 72 people. That tremor struck on a fault located just 11 miles underground.

Preparedness Pays Off

More than a decade of preparations aimed at protecting the area from an earthquake is also credited with keeping damage to a minimum. Seattle, which sits on or near several major faults, has been committed to earthquake preparedness for many years.

According to officials in Seattle, they have been preparing for a big quake by making building codes stricter and the public more aware of the threat. Some additional steps taken by the city include forming neighborhood disaster teams, training homeowners to seismically retrofit homes, enlisting businesses to help with awareness, and upgrading schools and bridges. In November 2000, voters in the Seattle area approved $193 million in bonds to retrofit the regional trauma center to withstand quakes.

Seattle officials also have completed extensive studies of other cities that have suffered devastating earthquakes, including Los Angeles and Kobe, Japan.

Much of the city’s recent revisions were conducted under Project Impact, a program sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Association. Seattle was one of seven cities at the start of this project three years ago. There are now 250 cities participating in Project Impact.

The program’s focus is to help create disaster resistant communities.

Damage Was Light, But Still Evident

Though officials have estimated damage from the quake could cost billions, that figure is viewed as light considering that the Pacific Northwest area is highly developed and has more than 3 million residents. Seattle is home to about 540,000 residents.

For the most part, the downtown business district of Seattle was spared from major damage. Mostly minor cracks and shattered glass occurred. Some buildings lost power and people were temporarily trapped. In total, about 230,000 homes and businesses were without power for a short time.

Much of the damage that did occur in the Seattle area was in older neighborhoods and districts.

Many of the old brick buildings in the historic Pioneer Square district of Seattle cracked or crumpled. Falling bricks flattened numerous parked cars in the area.

Seattle-based Starbucks Corporation shut its corporate headquarters, which was located in a historic building that suffered heavy damage. However, the company’s nationwide chain of coffee houses remained open.

As of March 6, Seattle officials had inspected more than 400 buildings, with 26 designated as uninhabitable and 161 requiring “supervised entry”. A few apartment buildings were included in the condemned buildings, forcing tenants to relocate to other housing.

In Olympia, about 10 miles from the epicenter, the dome on the State Capitol building was cracked. Legislators, state workers and visitors were evacuated from the building. The building was designated as ‘uninhabitable’ until repairs could be made. Those repairs were expected to take at least a week. In order to continue business, members of the Legislature and their staff had to enter the Capitol in shifts to collect computers and important files. They then worked in temporary locations near the Capitol building.

Also in Olympia, several dozen buildings, including one of the town’s large hotels and the public library, were damaged. The hotel and library remained closed for at least a week while repairs were made.

Transportation Problems Are Widespread

The earthquake also caused some problems with transportation into and around the Pacific Northwest area.

The two main north-south highways through downtown Seattle were closed for a day so inspectors could check and repair any cracks that occurred on bridges and overpasses. The roads were reopened on March 1, easing traffic problems for local residents.

Another local road, Highway 101, was closed when a mudslide covered a section of the highway. Some other area roads remained closed, with officials saying it could take weeks to inspect and fix damaged bridges and ramps.

Windows at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport control tower were shattered by the quake.

This forced air traffic controllers to evacuate the tower. All planes en route to the airport were diverted to other airports and all outgoing planes were grounded. Air traffic controllers temporarily set up office in a trailer and the airport resumed limited operations by 2:30 p.m. on February 28. Still, thousands of travelers were stranded as they tried to rebook cancelled flights.

Another local airport, King County Airport (also known as Boeing Field), had to divert most planes after the earthquake caused large cracks in the runway. Boeing Field’s biggest client is United Parcel Service, Inc. They were forced to shift most of their cargo flights to another field located 30 miles away. Other major clients include FedEx Corporation, Airborne Freight Inc., and Boeing Co. Most of these company’s smaller flights were still able to use King County Airport, but some of their larger planes were diverted. Full service to King County Airport may not be restored for up to three weeks.

Amtrak suspended train service between Portland, Oregon and Seattle until tracks could be inspected. Two trains with more than 220 people aboard were halted between Seattle and

Tacoma and buses were sent to pick up stranded passengers.

Other train services also suspended travel while they inspected their tracks. All railroad service resumed within a short period of time.

In Olympia, a major bridge connecting downtown with the city’s west side was condemned, as was a boulevard that runs along Capitol Lake. Repairs to those sections of road could take several weeks.

Pacific Northwest Declared As Disaster Area

President George W. Bush declared western Washington State a disaster area. This made federal grants and loans available to cover emergency housing and uninsured property losses.

The declaration also provided funds to help local agencies repair public facilities.
FEMA Agency Director Joe Allbaugh flew to Washington State to survey the damage and praised local preparedness at a news conference shortly after the earthquake occurred.

Preparedness Is An Ongoing Task

The efforts of Seattle officials, and those in surrounding areas, to prepare the area for earthquakes were evident when the February 28 quake struck. But officials admit there is much more work to do. And they know that no amount of preparation will ever provide total protection from an earthquake’s potential damage.

Seattle and the other coastal cities of the Pacific Northwest sit on an extremely quake-prone boundary between the Juan de Fuca plate and the North American plate. A major fault runs directly beneath the city of Seattle, and is known as the “Seattle Fault”. As a result, dozens of small quakes have occurred in the Pacific Northwest in the past 10 years.

Experts have said if a quake of the same magnitude as the February 28 quake struck closer to the surface or on another fault closer to the Seattle area, major damage would occur.

“We were very, very lucky,” Washington State Governor Gary Locke told Seattle television station NWCN. “There could have been utter catastrophe had it (the quake) been higher, closer to the surface, or it had even been on the Seattle fault.”

Janette Ballman is a senior editor with Disaster Recovery Journal. Some material for this article was provided by the Associated Press, Reuters and the Washington Post.