The Nisqually Quake, one year later: Property owners learned a new word 'retrofit'
Seattle Times business reporter
For the past 2½ months, Carolyn and John Rodenberg have spent Saturday afternoons in the cramped crawl space beneath their one-story house, drilling, nailing and bolting the wood frame to its concrete foundation.
It was hard, dusty work. They installed 39 steel plates, 49 steel brackets, 78 bolts, 195 screws and 392 nails. The Seattle couple could have hired someone to do it. They could have done nothing at all.
But after last year's earthquake — the biggest here in more than 50 years — the Rodenbergs decided to prepare their little house for the Big One.
"We didn't have much earthquake damage," said John Rodenberg. "We're just trying to make sure that if it happens again ... "
The Rodenbergs are among a growing number of property owners who have been shaken into action by the 6.8-magnitude Nisqually earthquake that rocked the Puget Sound region Feb. 28 and that seismologists say is a sign of worse to come.
People are flocking to classes to learn how to seismically retrofit their homes; contractors who retrofit houses, apartments and condo buildings say business remains strong. For a typical house, costs range from about $500 for a do-it-yourself retrofit to as much as $7,000 to hire it done.
Other people are taking smaller, less-expensive steps, such as securing water heaters and tall bookcases to walls.
It hasn't been easy to forget the quake. The past year has seen a steady stream of stories and pictures about quake-damaged buildings and businesses.
"There is quite a bit of buzz surrounding the anniversary," said Roger Faris, who has been teaching retrofitting classes in the Seattle area for 10 years.
His booth at the Seattle Home Show has been unusually popular this past week, he said.
But in other ways, memories of the quake are being put back on the shelf. Sales of disaster kits have dropped, along with interest in earthquake insurance.
"The public's interest is short-lived," said Melissa Harris, a spokeswoman for State Farm Insurance. "Six months later, it's out of mind. People think of quakes, and they think of California. They don't realize what a risk we have here."
The Feb. 28 quake caused an estimated $500 million damage, based on payouts by the state, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and insurance companies.
Most of the damage occurred to older brick buildings, such as those in Seattle's Pioneer Square, and to brick chimneys. More than 400 people were injured in the quake, but no one was killed.
"The Nisqually quake was an excellent wake-up call," said Gary Milici, who owns RetroFitters and helped the city set up seismic-retrofit standards in 1998. "Although it was very scary, it did almost no (structural) damage to residential wood-frame homes."
Many of the cracks residents have noticed in their walls and foundations could have been due to earlier quakes or routine settling, Milici said.
But property owners who were considering a retrofit before the quake were quickly knocked off the fence Feb. 28.
"I got the first call 26 minutes after the earthquake," said contractor Erik Jackson, co-owner of Sound Seismic in Seattle. "They said, 'Erik, I have that contract signed and the deposit ready.' "
That doesn't work with earthquake insurance.
After a quake of 5.0 magnitude or higher, companies typically won't issue policies for four to six weeks, because of the possibility that aftershocks or a larger quake could follow, said Karl Newman, president of the Washington Insurance Council, an industry group.
"We don't want to insure a car accident while it's happening," he said.
The insurance industry estimates that 12 to 20 percent of homes in Washington have quake coverage. It can cost a couple hundred dollars to several thousand dollars a year, depending on the company, the deductible, type of structure (wood frame or brick), location and age.
Some companies don't offer quake insurance, or cover only wood-frame houses, and may require homes be retrofitted to modern seismic standards before they qualify for coverage.
Quake insurance has deductibles ranging from 10 to 25 percent of the value of the home. That means a house worth $300,000 would have to incur $30,000 to $75,000 in damage before qualifying for any insurance money.
Insurers defend the cost and deductible by saying that a quake, unlike a house fire, can't be controlled and can cause widespread damage that could prove catastrophic to the insurance companies.
"Quake insurance is there for severe damage, to pick you back up," Newman said.
The Nisqually quake was considered moderate, as were the two other biggest quakes of the past century in the Puget Sound region — a 7.1 quake in 1949 and a 6.5 in 1965. Each claimed eight lives.
Last year's quake did relatively little damage to homes because it was deep — centered 30 miles below the earth's surface and near Olympia — and because the area has improved construction of new homes and worked to retrofit older ones.
Building codes in the Western U.S. were upgraded in the 1970s to require that the frame of a home be bolted to its foundation. There are still about 250,000 older homes in King County that don't have such protection, said Ines Pierce, the local director of Project Impact, a 4-year-old, public-private partnership that has become the epicenter of retrofit promotion and information in the area.
Project Impact initially was funded by a $1 million grant from FEMA, which provides low-interest loans and other financial assistance to property owners after a quake. The agency describes its role as supplementing insurance, not taking the place of it. FEMA will provide for "basic needs," such as temporary shelter or emergency repairs needed to make a home livable until more permanent repairs can be made.
Project Impact has helped create a new field of work for local contractors. Milici moved here in 1994 from retrofit-savvy Los Angeles and was surprised by how hard it was to find jobs and people who knew what he was talking about.
"People were like, 'Earthquake what? What do I need that for?' So I was doing a lot of educating and not much retrofitting the first year."
That's not the case today. More than 300 contractors are now trained to do such work, and Faris said that enrollment in his two-hour classes tripled this past year to 1,500.
Faris started the classes 10 years ago as the director of the Phinney Neighborhood Association's Well Home Program, which received a big boost from Project Impact.
For $10, people can take a two-hour course, offered about once or twice a month, and can borrow or rent tools at a nominal fee to do the work.
The goal of retrofitting is to keep the frame of a house from twisting off its foundation and collapsing. That is done through a combination of bolting down the frame and, if needed, strengthening the short wood-stud walls (called pony or cripple walls) below the home's first floor to keep them from swaying and giving way during a quake.
When the Rodenbergs first heard about the work and tools involved, they had doubts.
"It seemed like a lot to do," said Carolyn Rodenberg.
They first sought professional help, getting two bids that each came in at about $5,000. That was over what they budgeted.
So they took Faris' class, then did the job for $1,500, including the city permit and inspection.
"It's a real sense of accomplishment and also a good money savings," Carolyn Rodenberg said. "We feel like we know our house now."
Seattle Times staff reporter Susan Gilmore contributed to this report.
Bill Kossen can be reached at 206-464-2331 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.