Nudging Our Way to Safety

longbeach1933aAnyone who has lived in Seattle over the last 5 years has heard they hype around
the next earthquake or the big one that is supposed to hit Seattle soon. However, nobody is bringing up the dangers of the outdated and unsafe buildings that are in Seattle that have a serious potential to kill its occupants. As someone who has been studying past earthquakes during my undergraduate degree with involvement in the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) and continuing my education with a masters in structural engineering at the University of Washington and I feel obligated to voice my serious concern for public safety with regards to Seattle unreinforced masonry buildings (brick buildings without any steel reinforcing).

But why should I care you might ask? Back in 1933 a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck Long beach California where 54% of the unreinforced masonry buildings ended up with significant structural damage and needed to be torn down or underwent total collapse causing over 40 million dollars in damage at the time. In addition to the financial cost 120 people died from the earthquake and many of these deaths were due from falling debris from unreinforced masonry buildings when the people were running out of the buildings. Since then California prohibited the construction of new unreinforced masonry buildings in 1933 and state law enacted in 1986 required that all unreinforced masonry buildings be upgraded to improve their performance during an earthquake to protect their occupants. Washington state has not done this yet.

Now many people are asking “if California did this so long ago why haven’t we done something similar in Washington”. The answer 20130521missionsloeqsignis money. Upgrading these existing buildings can cost building owners thousands of dollars depending on the size of the job and many of them have the “if it isn’t broken don’t fix it” mentality. I believe that we can properly nudge these building owners in the right direction. For example one thing that California has done is require these buildings to have a warning plague at the main entrance saying the dangers of unreinforced masonry buildings which has obvious impact on the number of customers that come to businesses that are in the building which devalues the building which encourages the building owner to make these upgrades.

Currently there is an initiative at the Seattle DPD to bring these buildings up to code and improve their performance during an earthquake to better protect the occupants. You can check out the URL’s below to see the list of buildings that have been identified by the city that need to be upgraded in order to meet performance of the current building codes. (There are over 1150 of these buildings that have been identified in the greater Seattle area.) I also have linked an article in the Seattle times that was published this summer that has an interactive map that can help everyone visualize how big the problem is in Seattle.

I encourage everyone to look into this provision the city of Seattle is bringing forward because you never know when that next big quake is going to come, but when it does, the last thing you want to think about is if it’s going to come down on top of you.


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