Creative, Innovative, Inclusive Describes King County Utility Recovery

Ten years after the 7.2 magnitude earthquake shook King County, we are new and improved and built back better. Perhaps one of the biggest blows to our resilience was the state of our utilities. Residents and businesses alike faced significant damages to the utilities that served their homes and businesses. Water and wastewater, as well as the electrical grid, were impacted the worst. We overcame the odds by repairing and improving utilities across the King County region. Significant funding from numerous sources and lots of help from the community helped make it possible to repair the damages and reduce future risk to our infrastructure.

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.

The morning following the earthquake that shook King County ten years ago, Dr. Ann Howard got in her car and drove to Prairie View Hospital. At the time, Ann worked at Prairie View as a cardiologist. She went to check in on the state of the hospital and her patients.

“My first thought was, ‘oh god, I hope my patients are okay’. I just felt a sense of dread wash over me. Any disturbance to them could end up significantly affecting their health. I was scared we were going to lose them.”

When she arrived, Ann learned that the hospital had generators that served to power many medically critical devices. She explained that she was thrilled that backup generators were functioning properly. One day after the earthquake, nearly 266,000 residents were without electricity.

“We just weren’t prepared for that”, she continued, “I don’t think anyone was.”

The main culprit was a damaged high voltage transformer in an electric substation four miles from the hospital.  The transformers sit at relay points throughout the city. They serve to transmit electricity between power stations and consumers. Unfortunately, during the earthquake, several of the transformers around the county had been badly damaged, causing widespread power outages across the county.

When we contacted the local electrical company to get more information, they informed us that at the time, no backup transformers existed in the area. A week after the earthquake, an order was placed with Haitchi, located in Japan. They were one of the few manufacturers of this equipment in the world. Delivery for each transformer would take up to six months.

In the meantime, Seattle’s City Light as well as other electrical companies around the county worked hard to fix what they could as fast as possible. One month after the quake, the majority of people had their power back on, while 19,000 still remained in the dark.

The City of Northgate as well as the staff at Prairie View hospital were unfortunately part of the group that remained without an outside electricity source for a month. Things were already difficult to begin with for the hospital. In addition to the normal amount of incoming patients as well as their existing patients, they also dealt with the initial rush of injured people following the earthquake.

When it came to the power outage, they were able to rely upon numerous generators to continue to power the life sustaining medical equipment.

“Without those generators, many people would not have made it”, explained Jendra Herring, a nurse at Prairie View.

The bill to fix the power grid in it’s entirely cost upwards of $9.5 billion¹. Unfortunately, the $9.43 billion was hard to come by. King County was able to receive a grant from FEMA to help with some of the initial purchase of some key features of the grid which helped to make a large dent in the cost of repairs. In addition, the county proposed an extra tax of 5.3% for all homeowners who made more than $100,000 annually. Although this was a trade off, after the vote for the measure, it was clear that the majority of residents were in favor of the tax to see their cities emerge from the rubble.

As the city began to get back on its feet, new ideas for a greener King County began to spark. Everyone from those involved in neighborhood associations to State Officials saw the perfect opportunity for green energy investments.

One of King County’s biggest inspirations when it comes to disaster recovery is the city of Greensburg, Kansas. In 2007 the town was left almost completely razed by a tornado. In the wake of the destruction, over 95% of the town’s built structures were destroyed and many questioned if the event would be the death of the little community. However Greensburg not only rebuilt, but they rebuilt “stronger, better, greener!” as their new town motto decrees. Greensburg is now home to the most LEED certified buildings per capita of any town in the United States, is fully powered by 100% renewable energy, and has innovative water conservation and recycling techniques.

When the earthquake struck, nearly 91% of King County’s power came from projects on the Skagit and Pend Oreille Rivers, as well as from Bonneville Power Administration and a few others². While King County was already headed in the direction of 100% green energy, there was still about 9% to be accounted for.

With this window of opportunity, Puget Sound Energy decided to make the extra leap and aim for 100% green energy within 10 years. The Green Energy Fund subsidized the purchase and installation of solar panels on the roofs of nearly 2,360 new homes and buildings, providing energy for nearly 6,340 individuals.

Solar PanelsIn addition to the solar panels provided by the grant, King County started a new program that made buying solar panels much more affordable. The increased incentive motivated thousands more households to participate, as the program continues to do today. As of last month, King County receives 99.1% of its energy from environmentally-friendly sources.

“Even though we didn’t reach exactly 100%, we’re so close that it’s safe to say that we pretty much made it”, said the director of Seattle City Light Katherine Johnson.”

King County isn’t the only place taking steps towards greener cities following a disaster. In February 2011, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck Christchurch New Zealand causing severe damage in the country’s second largest city killing 185 people and leaving nearly 7,000 more injured. As of 2013 the estimated cost to rebuild the city looms at a daunting $40 billion.  As a result of the earthquakes the Marsdens’ home had sustained serious damage and required complete rebuilding. The Marsden’s took the rebuild as an opportunity to create a greener and more efficient home, installing a solar electric system and a solar water heating system on their roof. The advancements they have made will both eliminate the electrical costs of running their home, as well as make their household more efficient and ready for future events. So far, in the five months they have owned the solar electric and water heating systems, they have yet to pay an electricity bill and are actually in credit with their energy provider for around $200.

Not only did the region revamp the electrical grid, but also the wastewater system. Wastewater lines were significantly damaged by liquefaction caused by the Seattle Fault quake. The wastewater system incurred a total of 3682 leaks and 1798 pipe breaks. This was a huge loss that impacted many jurisdictions and thousands of residents and businesses.

The huge task of repairing the grid required not only a significant amount of money, but an equally large amount of workers to complete it. Seattle Public Utilities hired nearly 500 workers to help the existing employees to get the job done in a timely manner. Five years after the earthquake, all the broken waste water lines had been replaced with new piping that has flexible joints. This increases the durability of the pipes and reduces the risk of failure to any future earthquakes.

Utility workers dig to find broken waste water pipes after liquefaction caused significant damage.

Utility workers dig to find broken waste water pipes after liquefaction caused significant damage.

We talked to a construction worker who helped to repair the damaged piping about his experience.

“I feel so thankful to have had this opportunity to help my city recover and build back better. This job has been a blessing and all the work we put in will be nothing but good things to Seattle, I know it.”

In addition to the damaged waste water and electrical systems, many other utilities also suffered damage. Telecommunications, potable water, natural gas and oil systems were all affected.

Despite the hardships that King County faced after the devastating earthquake ten years ago, many community members, businesses, city officials have coordinated the recovery efforts of our critical utilities. Without these groups working together, we wouldn’t have been able to rebuilt like we did.