Will Seattle retrofit buildings to make them safer in earthquakes?

Seattle has more than 1,000 buildings that need to be retrofitted to be safer in an earthquake. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEATTLE -- A major earthquake is expected to hit Seattle, but according to the city more than 1,000 buildings are in need of major retrofitting.

On Monday, the Seattle City Council heard from their emergency management and building and construction divisions on the need to require renovations to unreinforced masonry buildings, or URMs.

“These buildings first and foremost represent a life-safety risk if we have an earthquake,” Jon Siu, from the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections, told the council. "There’s a large probability of having a Nisqually type of event, which damaged quite a large number of URM buildings.”

The city has discussed mandating retrofitting since the 1960s, but tearing up walls, floors and other parts of the buildings has been cost prohibitive. The plan being considered by the city would offer some financial assistance to building owners, as well as time to get the renovations completed.

“The policy committee recommended anywhere from seven to 13 years and the vast majority of the buildings would be in the 13-year range,” Siu said.

The concern among councilmembers was how the seismic upgrades would impact people living in homes on the URM list. Siu told the council that more than 25,000 people use the buildings in need of earthquake retrofitting on a daily basis.

But Dan Say, a partner at Swenson, Say and Faget, says building owners don’t need to vacate all buildings facing seismic renovations.

Say’s structural engineering company, located in Belltown, has seen a sharp spike in business over the last few years. He said he expects if the city makes retrofitting unreinforced masonry buildings mandatory, his firm will bee even busier.

Say tells KOMO that even though the earthquake threat has long loomed over the Puget Sound region, many building owners haven’t made any efforts to retrofit.

“What we’re trying to do here is protect people and whatever we can do as a design profession, whatever they can do as a legislative body they should do that,” according to Say.

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