Hundreds of buildings in Seattle remain at risk for collapse in event of major earthquake

SEATTLE — Heartbreaking images from Turkey and Syria remind us that we live in earthquake country, too. It’s why school kids in Western Washington regularly do earthquake drills.

But how safe are those school buildings?

“Some work has been successful. There’s a lot more to be done. There’s a lot of elementary and public high schools still at risk,” said emergency management consultant Eric Holdeman.

Holdeman said Seattle Public Schools is a model for seismic retrofitting, but many schools outside the city still need work.

The Nisqually Earthquake nearly 22 years ago showed what can happen with older buildings made of unreinforced masonry.

Within Seattle, the city keeps a running list of what it calls “unreinforced masonry buildings” prone to collapse in the event of a major earthquake based on a variety of factors. The buildings in that category were built before 1950 when modern building codes were more relaxed, with some even dating back to the late 1800s.

Of the 1,100 unreinforced masonry buildings in the city, about 200 have had some form of retrofitting. Seventy-five are categorized as schools, most of which have either been permitted for or already completed earthquake retrofits.

That includes a handful of buildings on the University of Washington campus. UW officials say about half of the 25 buildings with unreinforced masonry on campus have been addressed so far, in a project the university estimates will eventually cost more than $100 million.

Meanwhile, Seattle Central College is seeking funding for a seismic retrofit of its Broadway Performance Hall, built in 1911.

“We know what buildings are vulnerable, and there is an engineering strategy to fix them. We just need to do it,” said Amanda Hertzfeld with the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections.

Pioneer Square, in particular, has a lot of vulnerable buildings.

The city is consulting experts and planning to pass an ordinance in late 2024 requiring retrofits.

“The responsibility would fall on the building owner, and that’s partially what makes this so complicated,” Hertzfeld said.

Retrofitting work is expensive, and the city is working on ways to help building owners get financial help. In 2019, a city consultant estimated it would cost a total of $1.2 billion to do all the work, and that was before recent inflation.

The new city ordinance will likely allow owners between seven and 13 years to do the work.

You can see a full list of Seattle’s unreinforced masonry buildings at this link.