22 years after Nisqually earthquake, some still not ready for ‘the big one’

Feb 28, 2023, 8:40 AM
earthquake, big one, urm, urms, cascadia...
Seattle's Fenix Underground storefront after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. (FEMA, Washington State Governor's Office)
(FEMA, Washington State Governor's Office)

Tuesday, Feb. 28, marks the 22-year anniversary of the damaging Nisqually earthquake rattling western Washington.

On the sunny morning of Feb. 28, 2001, just before 11 a.m., the ground suddenly began to powerfully shake, building in intensity, as a magnitude 6.8 earthquake struck 11 miles below the Nisqually Delta. The epicenter was northeast of Olympia, but it was felt in Tacoma and Seattle and even as far away as Oregon, British Columbia, eastern Washington, and Idaho.

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More than 400 people were injured, though only one person died of a heart attack. The damage, however, was extensive: close to $4 billion, according to the Washington Military Department. It was an event many in the Puget Sound area had never experienced before. The last quakes reaching that intensity were in 1949 and 1965, respectively.

Washington state is no stranger to earthquakes. Over 1,000 occur in Washington each year, according to the state’s Emergency Management Division. The majority of these are small; most may not even be felt. But in the last 125 years, the state has experienced at least 20 damaging earthquakes.

Most of our populated areas have a 40-80% chance of a large earthquake happening in the next 50 years, the second highest level of risk in the United States, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

These could be Nisqually-level events or something far more destructive. The Cascadia Subduction Zone just off the Pacific Northwest coast can produce around a 9.0 magnitude quake, as history shows. That’s the same magnitude as the 2011 quake off the coast of Japan that devastated the island nation and was felt all the way to the coast of Alaska.

In short: it’s not if but when ‘the big one’ will hit Washington.

Leif Jackson, the owner of Sound Seismic Earthquake Retrofitting in Seattle, says one thing families can do to protect themselves is to retrofit their homes to help stabilize them.

“The work has been shown to be very effective at preventing major structural damage,” Jackson says.

Prior to 1980, state building codes did not require houses to be bolted to their foundations. This does not mean that every house built before 1980 is “unsecured,” only that it was not a requirement, according to officials with the City of Seattle.

However, they say if your home is not properly secured, it may be at increased risk of “slipping” off the foundation during a major earthquake. Much of the damage from the Nisqually earthquake was near the epicenter, but unreinforced concrete or masonry buildings in the First Hill, Pioneer Square, and SoDo neighborhoods of Seattle also suffered the effects.

Leif Jackson estimates out of the more than 950,000 homes in King County, at least 400,000 need retrofitting, and he says the time to get it done is now.

“The people I talk to who say ‘I’ve been through 3 earthquakes; my house is fine’… [I say] your house has been through 3 moderate earthquakes. The big earthquakes will be a different event entirely,” Jackson said.

Retrofitting is admittedly not cheap. The cost depends on multiple factors, including whether your house has a basement, but it ranges from a few thousand dollars to more than $30,000, according to Jackson. He says while the upfront price is steep, it will cost far more to repair the damage after a major earthquake.

“A lot of our homes [in Seattle] cost a million dollars. A $10,000 retrofit is 1% of that,” Jackson said.

If you don’t want to hire a contractor, it is possible to retrofit a home yourself. The City of Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management and Department of Planning and Development offers a free class for those who want to do so.

As for where you’ll be when ‘the big one’ does hit, a system recently launched in our area could provide seconds of warning to protect yourself before it arrives.

The ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning alerts warn residents of incoming earthquakes through the MyShake app, built-in software on Android Phones, and the Wireless Emergency Alert system on all phones. Residents can download the app on their phones through the App Store or Google Play.

The free MyShake app was launched on Jan. 26, 2022, the anniversary of the devastating Cascadia earthquake hitting the Pacific Northwest more than 300 years ago. The app will send alerts to phones in light to heavy shaking areas for estimated magnitude 4.5 earthquakes and higher. Alerts will not go out for all felt events, just damaging ones.

For more earthquake preparedness information, such as a backup communication plan and how to secure items in your home or business, visit Washington Earthquake Preparedness from the Department of Natural Resources.

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22 years after Nisqually earthquake, some still not ready for ‘the big one’