Earthquake Damage Gives Opportunity to Build Back Better

The 7.2 magnitude Seattle Earthquake happened 10 years ago this month. On the occasion of the anniversary, this edition focuses on the great strides made to rebuild the King County region. The historic earthquake resulted in $2.4 billion in physical damage to all types of buildings across King County. This had significant impacts on residents’ livelihoods.

This story is a work of fiction, including all names and quotes, written by WWU DRR students for public education purposes. Site design by Dr. Scott Miles.

In total, just over 175, 000 buildings were at least moderately damaged in the earthquake and its resulting aftershocks. That amounted to over 9 percent of the total number of buildings in the region at the time of the quake. In many cases, even “moderate damage” still required a structural inspection and some repair before buildings were able to be occupied. It took 400 building inspectors to complete building damage assessments in only one month. Even so, residents were left waiting in temporary housing and without safe commercial capabilities for several months and in some cases years.

A building inspector surveying a manufactured home in Hobart, WA

A building inspector surveying a manufactured home in Hobart, WA


Commercial buildings of businesses in the region were among the hardest hit. Just under a quarter of the buildings left had at least moderate damage. Almost 3, 000 commercial buildings were completely damaged by the shaking. The occupants lost their space needed for business activities and earning revenue.

Without huge savings, small business owners like Maria O’Brian struggled more than national companies. In an interview shortly after the earthquake, O’Brian had explained the effect it had on her.

“Our grocery store was the cornerstone of this community and our livelihood and now it’s all gone,” she explained, “But I am so grateful my family is still alive and my home is still standing. In that way I’m lucky.”

The region suffered from 31, 000 displaced households and 18, 000 displaced individuals from the earthquake. 9 percent of the total number of single-family houses in the region sustained moderate to severe damage.

The Christies reflect one of the many stories that contribute to those displaced from their homes. The Christies’ home was categorized under “moderate” damage, leaving cracked walls and concern about the structural safety for the family. Because of the sheer number of buildings in King County needing inspections at the time, it took two months before the Christies’ home was inspected. It took another two months to make the necessary repairs to be able to move back in.

Even though some buildings withstood the shaking, building fires occurred because of broken gas lines and water pipes, creating even more damage. Over 200 individual fires ignited in the wake of the earthquake burning over 10 square miles of the region. The number of fires relative to the number of responders and the lack of water allowed damage to occur to some buildings that weren’t damaged by the shaking. The fires alone displaced around 34, 500 people and caused $3, 000 million in building damage.

Fires are often a common occurrence following earthquakes. Perhaps the most famous example is the fires following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which almost completely destroyed the city. Fires ignited due to broken gas mains and strong winds encouraged the flames. An estimated 300 water mains broke within the city cutting off responders’ access to water, allowing fires to intensify. Although this event took place over 100 years ago, it’s clear many of the same issues caused damage in King County.

Bethany Hernandez’s Bellevue apartment building was among those burned after the quake. “I thought I was one of the lucky ones,” she told us 10 years ago, “but as soon as I began processing what happened, my home was up in flames.”

The lack of responders was in part due to the structural harm sustained by the fire stations themselves. 18 fire stations sustained enough damage to shut down operations. 126 fire stations within the region were unable to function during the first day following the earthquake. This stretched firefighting capacities across the county. Some areas had less law enforcement capacity than normal to cope with the higher number of dispatch calls. After the earthquake, only 85 percent of the stations were at least half functioning.

In King County, the earthquake and its aftershocks caused 15,500 injuries requiring hospital treatment. However, with eight hospitals not functioning directly after the quake and seven only partially functioning, there was a severe lack of treatment facilities available to care for the injured. Because of damage to hospital buildings there were only 2, 000 beds available immediately after the quake. This was 35% of the normal capacity.

Schools are a critical facility that many residents rely on not only for the education of their children but also for daily childcare while at work. Only 78 percent of schools within the affected region were structurally able to function after shaking stopped. These essential community-gathering spots are both job creators and enablers. With damage to the schools, effects reach further just the students.

Another critical gathering place includes places of worship. Within King County at the time there were 4, 675 places of worship. Around 21 percent of those buildings sustained moderate to complete damage. Places of worship tend to foster strong communities within its doors.

Among the affected was Reverend James Black, of St. Cross Church in Kent. Even though the church was unusable at the time, Reverend so and so was confident in the longevity of its influence. “We have a great community here,” he explained, “I know that everyone will help those in need in and out of the church. Even though [the building] can’t function as a gathering place right now, they will all lean on each other.”

Location-wise, damage was most significant around the Duwamish River, due to the liquefaction hazard of river sediment. The Duwamish River, which feeds into Elliot Bay in Seattle, was historically a highly industrialized area. Because of the liquefiable nature of the soils, industrial facilities were damaged during the earthquake and its aftershocks, further polluting the waters of the Duwamish.

Due to the age of the buildings within King County, some building types were more susceptible to damage than others. Unreinforced masonry or brick buildings were among the types of building that suffered the most collapse. Other unreinforced masonry buildings did not crumble completely but instead had entire sides of the building peel off and block streets and injure pedestrians.

James Hurlbut owned one of the only standing unreinforced masonry buildings remaining on his block in Seattle. Unfortunately the rest did not survive the earthquake.

“I feel so lucky that my building is standing,” says Mr. Hurlbut, “but looking at the block, it’s tough to see it regaining its character and community anytime soon.”

The most vulnerable buildings were manufactured homes. Manufactured homes had the most buildings deemed to be completely damaged and therefore uninhabitable by the homeowner or tenant. Those residing in manufactured homes tend to already have financial stress. The destruction of their residences could further exacerbate their financial situation.

Unreinforced Masonry

An example of unreinforced masonry from Enumclaw, WA

Manufactured homes have a history of being unsafe in earthquake prone areas. The 5.2 magnitude earthquake that struck Goleta, CA in 1978 had a significant impact on these types of homes. The shaking caused numerous gas, water and electrical lines to break. In several cases the pedestals the mobile homes stood on stuck through the floor and into the residence. In all, 324 manufactured homes were damaged, with some even catching fire from the ruptured gas lines. In contrast to this, the single-family homes withstood only minor damages in the earthquake.

Barbara Hausholder moved to Olympia from her manufactured home to live with her sister shortly after the earthquake. Due to her financial situation, Hausholder was unable to find a new housing arrangement by herself.

“Living on my own was one of life’s greatest pleasures,” Hausholder said about the experience, “But [my sister] was kind enough to give me a place in her home and I was able to transfer my job.”

These instances allowed Hausholder to reestablish down south. She is still currently residing in Olympia.

In total, the 7.2 Seattle Fault earthquake resulted in 7.4 million tons of debris. Of this, 31 percent was comprised of brick and wood. The rest of the material consisted of reinforced concrete and steel. The debris required an estimated 296,720 truckloads to remove.

In the face of all of the damage and debris generated by the historic earthquake, King County had the opportunity to build again. The planning period after the event left room for identification of priorities and provided an opportunity for the county to choose to build back better. To see the projects completed and the progress made in King County through the past 10 years, explore the rest of the articles in this 10 year anniversary edition.