Seattle makes little progress on buildings that can kill in earthquakes

This is an urgent issue: Seattle makes little progress on buildings that can kill in earthquakes

By Sandi Doughton and Daniel Gilbert
Seattle Times staff reporters

“You might be on borrowed time,” warns the mayor of a New Zealand city where a 2011 quake destroyed unretrofitted brick buildings and killed 185 people. Retrofitting old buildings may be expensive, she said, but it costs less than the liability for injuries or fatalities.

As Lianne Dalziel strolled through Pioneer Square on an afternoon in late fall, she cast a wary eye at the century-old brick buildings that give Seattle’s original neighborhood much of its charm.

Dalziel is the mayor of Christchurch, New Zealand, which used to have a similar historic district before an earthquake reduced the trendy pubs, restaurants and art galleries to rubble.

During a visit to share lessons from the 2011 disaster, which killed 185 people, Dalziel offered a blunt warning for the earthquake-prone Pacific Northwest: “You might be on borrowed time.”

But Seattle’s decades-old effort to strengthen vulnerable buildings remains stuck.

It’s been five years since an advisory committee recommended mandatory retrofits for unreinforced brick and stone buildings — the type of construction most likely to topple in a quake. There are more than 1,100 such buildings in Seattle and thousands more across the state.

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