Nisqually earthquake anniversary jolts memories
February 22, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
Issaquah is more prepared now than during 2001 roller
The ground started to shake as Bret Heath stood upstairs at the old municipal public works office — the steel-frame and metal-clad structure used nowadays as the parks department maintenance facility — and in seconds, the building rolled, like a ship tossed on ocean swells.
“I remember thinking, ‘I wonder if this building is going to hold together,’” the longtime Public Works Operations and emergency management director said.
Feb. 28, 2001, brought the most recent major earthquake to the region. The magnitude-6.8 Nisqually earthquake acted as a jolting reminder for residents in Issaquah and across the Pacific Northwest of the looming seismic threat in the region.
Planners used the decade since the temblor to prepare for manmade and natural disasters. The earthquake and subsequent threats also acted as a catalyst for more detailed disaster-response plans and for the Citizen Emergency Response Teams in Issaquah neighborhoods.
The earthquake also prompted the city, Eastside Fire & Rescue and other agencies to re-examine some disaster policies.
In the moments after the ground settled on a February morning 10 years ago, officials imagined the upheaval had caused far-reaching destruction.
“I went out of the building after things stopped moving, and I just expected to see total destruction everywhere,” Heath recalled.
Instead, emergency crews discovered minor damage to building façades and cracks in streets, as teams fanned out to inspect roads, bridges and buildings. The shaking damaged the reservoir in the Forest Rim neighborhood on Squak Mountain. The temblor sent merchandise crashing from display cases at local stores.
The regional 800 MHz communications system failed amid the deluge of radio traffic in the aftermath, forcing EFR and Issaquah Police Department responders to turn to backup systems.
In the end, a major headache turned out to be traffic, as motorists clogged city streets in a frantic effort to reach homes and schools to fetch children.
“All in all, it was a great reminder and wake-up call for everybody, but it was not a big earthquake,” Heath said.
Reminder to prepare
Mayor Ava Frisinger reached the observation deck at the Space Needle moments before the earthquake rattled the region at 10:54 a.m.
The mayor, then-councilmen Bill Conley and Joe Forkner, and Deputy Public Works Engineering Director Sheldon Lynne had arrived at the Seattle landmark early for a Cascade Water Alliance meeting.
“All of the sudden, it felt as if the bottom dropped out of an elevator,” Frisinger recalled.
The mayor clung to a diagonal steel beam as the Space Needle rattled for 45 stomach-churning seconds.
“What I thought was, ‘Well, I’ve had a pretty long life and I’ve had lots of good friends and a wonderful family, and if it’s my time to go, oh, please don’t let me scream,’” she said.
The structure — built in 1961-62 to survive a magnitude-9 earthquake — continued to sway, like the pendulum of a clock, in the moments after the ground stopped shaking.
Frisinger and the others — the so-called Seattle 30, as journalists dubbed the group — remained on the Space Needle as crews inspected the pod-shaped elevators before the mayor could return to Issaquah to man the Emergency Operations Center.
“As an involuntary emergency preparedness exercise, it was quite a good thing,” she said.
The earthquake occurred just months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The attacks, plus Hurricane Katrina in 2005, highlighted the need for proper emergency preparedness and disaster response.
Incidents closer to home also changed how Issaquah responds to disasters in the decade since the Nisqually earthquake.
Issaquah leaders created a communications coordinator position to coordinate outreach efforts after the Chanukah Eve windstorm in December 2006.
City emergency teams had participated in regional Sound Shake exercises since the 1990s and joined the most recent exercise last October.
City leaders also engaged in pandemic planning for the H1N1 flu and SARS.
“People will criticize that you over-prepare for these things,” Frisinger said. “Part of idea with disaster preparedness is that it’s better to over-prepare, because then it becomes just so rote.”
Catalyst for catastrophe
The earthquake struck as Katherine Boury stood in a classroom at the American Red Cross office in Seattle.
Though employees at the nonprofit organization drilled for earthquakes, the shaking caught the spokeswoman by surprise.
“We’re lucky enough that we don’t have big ones like that very often, but when they do occur, they’re very impactful,” she said.
Teams mobilized throughout the region to respond to the earthquake. The temblor also changed the way the Red Cross responds to disasters.
The organization set up supply centers throughout King County in the years after the earthquake.
The key challenge after a disaster is to disseminate information to the public. So, Red Cross leaders continue to urge residents to plan ahead for earthquakes and other calamities.
“In a disaster, public information is so, so crucial,” Boury said. “Not having that information can be the most frustrating thing for people.”
The temblor a decade ago originated deep underground and more than 60 miles from Issaquah.
The city rests along the Seattle Fault, a shallow zone stretched along the interstate from Puget Sound and east through lakes Washington and Sammamish. The city is also near the Rattlesnake Mountain and South Whidbey Island fault zones.
U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Craig Weaver predicted widespread destruction and infrastructure impacts if a major earthquake rattled the Seattle Fault.
“Exactly what bridge is out of service, that’s all sort of a guessing game, but the guessing game is a lot better today than it would have been 10 years ago,” he said.
The doomsday scenario Weaver and other scientists outlined in 2008 estimated a magnitude-6.7 earthquake along the fault could cause $33 billion in damage, hobble Interstate 90 and other highways, threaten drinking water supplies and cripple the region for years.
“When it finally happens, it’s not going to happen like that,” he said. “But it provides a good basis to consider: Here are some of our vulnerabilities and here are things we need to fix. I think there is definitely a much stronger awareness than there was 10 years ago.”
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.
Prepare for earthquakes
American Red Cross planners offer simple tips for residents to prepare for earthquakes:
- Learn fire evacuation and earthquake plans for all of the buildings you occupy on a regular basis.
- Select safe places in each room of your home, workplace or school. The safe place could be under a piece of furniture, or against an interior wall away from windows, bookcases or tall furniture.
- Practice drop, cover and hold on in each safe place. If you do not have sturdy furniture to hold on to, sit on the floor next to an interior wall and cover your head and neck with your arms.
- Keep a flashlight and sturdy shoes by each person’s bed.
- Keep and maintain an emergency supplies kit in an easy-to-access location.
- Make sure your home is securely anchored to its foundation.
- Bolt and brace water heaters and gas appliances to wall studs. Bolt bookcases, china cabinets and other tall pieces of furniture to wall studs. Brace overhead light fixtures.
- Hang heavy items, such as pictures and mirrors, away from beds, couches and anywhere people sleep or sit.
- Install strong latches or bolts on cabinets. Place large or heavy items in the cabinets closest to the floor.
- Learn how to shut off the gas valves in your home, and keep a wrench handy for use.
- Learn about your area’s seismic building standards and land use codes before you start construction.
- Designate an out-of-area contact, because local lines can be difficult to access during a disaster. In the aftermath of a disaster, family members can call the contact person from out of the area to report on their status and to check on others. A text message from a wireless communication device often works if a cellular signal is not strong enough to make a voice call.