When ‘The Big One’ hits, it’s not falling cranes you should be worried about

Jul 23, 2015, 7:21 AM | Updated: 10:52 am
Cranes are built to withstand earthquakes, and are usually anchored to the building they’re c...
Cranes are built to withstand earthquakes, and are usually anchored to the building they're constructing, making them more stable during seismic activity. (AP)

Step onto just about any downtown street, and they’re easy to spot: tower cranes peppering the skyline. They’re an indicator of the Puget Sound’s massive construction boom.

But what happens when a massive earthquake hits, such as the potential 9.2 magnitude quake predicted for the Northwest?

Related: New Yorker reports devastating NW earthquake could happen within 50 years

That’s when decades of research and science will kick into action to keep buildings &#8212 and cranes &#8212 standing.

John Hooper is the principal earthquake engineer with Seattle-based engineering firm Magnusson Klemencic Associates. He travels the world learning about building techniques that can help carry us through “The Big One,” and says cranes are actually pretty stable.

See where earthquakes occur every day with MyNorthwest’s earthquake tracker

“People look at them they say, wow, they’re way high in the air. But if you look carefully at them,” Hooper said. “They’re usually attached to the building they’re building every 10 or 20 stories. So they’re not just cantillating out of the ground like a tree does. They’re actually connected every so often.”

“So they will go along for the ride with the building they’re helping to construct,” he said.

And Seattle’s growing skyline is built to withstand the worst of it as well. New homes, apartments and skyscrapers are designed so that the risk of collapse is just 2 to 5 percent if the strongest quake hits. While they’re under construction, they’re also stable because of the concrete cores anchoring them to the ground.

The biggest danger of something falling out of the sky, Hooper says, isn’t a crane. It’s the threat of falling glass from the outside of a highrise. That’s something builders are still working on.

“It still may happen, but we’re looking at trying to minimize that potential, so the collateral damage of people walking downtown is minimized,” Hooper said. “There’s no guarantees, but that’s what the goal is.”

And here in Washington, builders, engineers and researchers are on the cutting edge of new technology that’s being developed all the time to improve safety and stability.

Related: The ‘Big One’ won’t be as bad as some say

The Cascadia fault was discovered about 45 years ago, but it was only in the late 1980s that scientists were able to fully grasp the implications of the 700-mile long formation. It was in 1994 that designers started factoring that risk into construction. Since then, seismic technology has grown by leaps and bounds.

Each building that goes up in Washington takes into account very specific conditions, including soil types, like the hard packed glacial dirt that downtown Seattle is based on, and the sand and silt in pioneer square. The softer the soil, the more shaking people will feel, and the higher danger of building damage.

Earthquake engineers, like Hooper, even measure the exact distance to all the faults in the region, the nearest of which sits right on I-90, and simulate an earthquake so they know exactly what to expect &#8212 harder shaking from the closer Seattle fault, and longer shaking from the Cascadia.

“Inside the building, the partition walls will be cracked, absolutely,” Hooper said. “Ceiling tiles will drop &#8212 that just happens. The piping will be bent, and sprinklers may go off. Stairwells will be damaged, but they should be passable. The structural system that holds up the building itself, there will be elements that will twist and bend and crack. They’re designed to do that.”

That means that even with the technology that allows buildings to stay standing and carry people through the earthquake, they could be a total loss, changing the face of the Puget Sound forever.

“Because, again, our goal is life safety. We want to protect people’s lives. We’re not certain that we protect the total investment,” Hooper said.

Local News

Crystal Mountain weather...
Bill Kaczaraba

Typical northwest weather pattern shaping up for the rest of the week

It's beginning to look like the northwest, instead of the arctic circle, with rain in the lowlands, and snow in the mountains. Typical PNW December weather.
10 hours ago
Twitter headquarters...
Bill Kaczaraba

Twitter use of bedrooms at headquarters called into question

Twitter has apparently set up makeshift bedrooms at its headquarters and San Francisco authorities aren't buying it.
10 hours ago
Photo from KIRO 7...
KIRO 7 News Staff

Closing arguments heard in trial of man accused of killing couple found washed ashore in suitcase

Jurors heard closing arguments Tuesday in a disturbing case involving bodies washed ashore on Alki Beach.
10 hours ago
Asian giant hornet, murder hornet...
Travis Mayfield

Mayfield: Cooperation and communication is what got rid of Murder Hornets

Congratulations are in order for the folks at our state's Department of Agriculture. Why? They didn't catch a single Murder Hornet in Washington all year.
10 hours ago
L.B. Gilbert

30 car collision blocks I-90 east of Kittitas, 10-12 hour closure expected

Around 5:50 a.m. WSDOT announced Interstate 90 is closed 16 miles east of Ellensburg due to a multiple-car collision that WSP says involves 30 vehicles.
10 hours ago
Police Lights...
Lisa Brooks

Seattle police investigate multiple convenience store robberies

Seattle Police are investigating two armed robberies at convenience stores in the West Seattle area that investigators say may be connected.
10 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
Lake Washington Windows...

Choosing Best Windows for Your Home

Lake Washington Windows and Doors is a local window dealer offering the exclusive Leak Armor installation.
Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Work at Zum Services...

Seattle Public Schools announces three-year contract with Zum

Seattle Public Schools just announced a three-year contract with a brand-new company to the Pacific Northwest to assist with their student transportation: Zum.
When ‘The Big One’ hits, it’s not falling cranes you should be worried about