On Seismic Neglect

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

Sunday May 15 the Seattle Times (“Seismic Neglect” seattletimes.com) began a series that critiques the lack of leadership with respect to addressing the seismic risk of Washington State, and in particular that Seattle faces. The report provides examples of buildings that are at risk, describes the financial challenges building owners face, and delves into the web of inaction that is itself an abrogation of the responsibilities of government, and a threat to the safety of the public. Is it possible that the final legacy of these dangerous structures will be tied to the number of deaths caused by the unwillingness to act?

Will the reaction to this tightly researched initial report spark more than a defensive reaction among state legislators, local government officials, and mayors, county executives, and the governor? Don’t hold your breath. To the extent that there is a response from leaders one can expect “damage control” to be the main focus: after all, local officials have more imminent concerns like roads to fix, levies to pass, bike lanes to create. And the state has to contend with the legislature’s stubborn refusal to fully fund education, among other things. And then there are those daily issues – the “priorities of the moment”. In almost every disaster that I dealt with during my career in emergency management it was evident that “government priorities” change rapidly once a crisis occurs. Whatever one may have thought was important just prior to the event pales in comparison to the post disaster environment.

Why should elected officials and senior subject matter appointees bother with an explosive issue like seismic retrofitting? The answer seems to be that despite its potential to actually save lives, and help sustain our economy by minimizing property damage, it is expensive. The answer is found in the question: lives and livelihoods are at stake, and government’s responsibility is to raise the tough issues and find a workable consensus.

There is a body of research that supports a greater investment of time and money in mitigation activities of the sort found lacking in the Times’ report. Evidence that mitigation efforts (like seismic retrofits) are cost effective can be found in statements by the Natural Hazards Mitigation Association: “The savings of disaster damage reduction (used interchangeably with hazard mitigation) are well documented including the 4 to 1 dollar return on investment” as noted in a 2005 Multihazard Council Mitigation report:. Other studies from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the large insurance company Swiss RE indicate that higher design standards have a far greater impact than 4 to 1. Swiss Re reports that “Evidence suggests that every dollar spent on disaster risk reduction has a ten -to- one cost benefit ratio…”

If they have been paying any attention at all, elected leaders in our state know much more about the earthquake risk, the benefits of mitigation, and the prudence of planning for long term recovery than their actions would suggest, yet continue to avoid initiating a dialogue with the voters about disaster mitigation.

Even as state and local officials hope that this recent expose of ineffectuality in government will blow over, their spokespersons might want to begin to prepare for questions that will be posed in the days after that big earthquake: “Why didn’t you address this threat in advance? What else seemed so important that you ignored the warnings”? Concocting a credible excuse might take more time than they, or any of us, have.

Mayor, Governor, City Council Members, State legislators: as elected officials you would be wise to initiate a collegian, statewide discussion of earthquake vulnerabilities and debate options to mitigate our risks: as human beings, dare I say your moral obligation is even higher.

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