Engineers to ask Seattle City Council for mandatory earthquake retrofits

Damage from the 2001 Nisqually earthquake.

On Feb. 28, 2001, the ground beneath Seattle shook with such violence many buildings were red-tagged as unsafe to inhabit.

In the 16 plus years since, engineers with the city's Department of Construction and Inspections has compiled a list of Seattle's more than 1,100 buildings in danger of causing damage -- even death -- because of unreinforced masonry that could crumble during a quake.

However, even after those buildings were identified, there has been no mandatory requirement for property owners to retrofit them.

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“Bottom line, it’s necessary because we’re trying to preserve lives,” Siu told KIRO 7 on Wednesday.

Siu, who spent 33 years working as an engineer for the city of Seattle, said there have been many discussions during those three decades about how to prevent earthquake damage.

So far, there has been no action, in part because of the high cost.

“All this work is likely to raise rents,” Siu told KIRO 7, “so we have to balance the needs of those people as well as the needs of keeping them safe.”

In the next few months, Siu and his team will present a proposal to Seattle City Council members that would require building owners to upgrade their property if it is considered dangerous.

BF Day Elementary in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood would be one of the priority buildings – forced to make the upgrades within seven years -- because of its age and because it holds more than 300 school-age children.

"They need to get children out of those structures and take them down, and put up safer buildings,” said Bill Steele, communications director for the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.

Steele has been interviewed by KIRO 7 many times over the past 20 years about the area’s high earthquake risk and the importance of retrofitting buildings to better protect occupants in the event of a quake.

He said thousands of single-family homeowners have made their own changes but believes statewide mandatory enforcement is necessary.

“There’s only two ways these buildings get taken out of service," Steele said. "One is by an earthquake, and usually there are casualties associated with that.  The other is by mandatory requirements.  Neither one is easy. They both cause pain.”

Siu acknowledges his proposal will be costly for property owners and possibly a tough sell politically.

“The financial cost is huge,” he said.  Most owners “won’t be able to afford this.”  He also acknowledged there’s a high likelihood citizens will be displaced from their homes while the work is done, and might not be able to afford higher rents once they are retrofitted, putting more pressure on the city’s homelessness crisis.

Siu also doesn’t know whether he’ll have full City Council support.  “I don’t have a good indication of that, we do have some council members who have been tracking our progress," he said.

Siu plans to brief the council on the engineers’ proposal sometime this fall and hopes to have mandatory requirements in place by early next year.