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How capitalism could help Seattle improve earthquake safety


“The best science says, not only are earthquakes unpredictable, they will never be predictable because they’re very dynamically unstable,” says Tim Melbourne, professor of seismology and tectonics, who runs the Cascadia Hazards Institute.

Seattle is sitting on a magnitude 9.0 fault line. And since Melbourne says predicting a quake is not a viable option, we’re left having to find other options to prepare ourselves – like capitalism.

Since the Nisqually earthquake in 2001, a once unstable neighborhood, Pioneer Square, has been retrofitted to better handle the next shake. The reinforcement on many of the buildings is visible to the naked eye.

But if this were Japan, Melbourne says retrofitting wouldn’t cut it for many of those buildings. They would be torn down.

“Japan is the best prepared nation on Earth. They have the highest seismic hazards,” Melbourne tells KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “They have a history of losing thousands of people in violent deaths (from) earthquakes and they’ve done a lot of preparation. Compared to Japan, the West Coast of the United States is not nearly as prepared.”

Melbourne’s solution for Seattle is to put visible warnings on buildings.

He says it’s something different communities around the world have done in order to evade seismic hazards.

In New Zealand, the Wellington City Council posts a list of earthquake prone buildings on its website after passing its policy in 2009.

“It requires that buildings assessed as earthquake prone (or less than one-third of new building standard) are upgraded within a certain timeframe.”

It allows the council to negotiate with the building owner on timeframes and particular concerns for strengthening the structure.

Melbourne says it’s difficult to tell a building owner, especially one who has owned the property for years, that their building is not earthquake-safe and needs to be torn down.

“Well, if there is a plaque on the front that says, ‘This is unsafe, if there’s an earthquake you might not fare so well,’ it turns out that is a very effective source for landlords to say, okay, what is the cost here.”

Take the proprietor of a nice, old beautiful, un-reinforced brick building in Pioneer Square. Melbourne says if there is a restaurant in that building and every patron who walks inside has to see this plaque that says ‘the building is unsafe’ on their way into eat – it’s a buzzkill.

“There are many different countries, whether it’s New Zealand or Japan or the United States, that have struck different balances. But the reality is, it costs money to be prepared. The question is how prepared are we willing to be?”

Melbourne says there’s a lot more we could do to prepare ourselves, but it will cost more money.

“It is three years since Japan had a magnitude 9 that killed 18,000,” says Melbourne. “We do live on a magnitude 9 fault.”

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