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Nisqually earthquake 10 years ago spurred planning and lots of science

Nisqually shaker 10 years ago today spurred planning and lots of science

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By Bill Sheets
Herald Writer
EVERETT -- Mary Bauer was teaching a class of elementary school students in Mountlake Terrace on Feb. 28, 2001, when the building started shaking.
"We followed what we had practiced during drills," Bauer said of her class at Evergreen Elementary School. "I knew I was keeping calm, because students were smiling as they emerged from under their desks as if to say, 'This is cool.' "
Like those children, the rest of Snohomish County survived the Nisqually earthquake relatively unscathed. Still, the quake 10 years ago today spurred some big strides in how this county has prepared for earthquakes.
County government, for example, created a department for disaster preparedness out of what had been a loose-knit, informal network, said John Pennington, director of the county's Department of Emergency Management.
Begun in 2006, the department has transformed the county's approach to earthquakes from one of after-the-fact response by individual agencies to one of advance planning, Pennington said. The department has an annual budget of $1 million, he said.
"Nisqually was very influential to the creation of the department and how it looks today," Pennington said.
Damage in Snohomish County, more than 60 miles from the epicenter under Anderson Island near Olympia, was minor. Still, the quake also helped encourage stricter compliance with building codes, more seismic retrofits of schools and bridges, more training for first responders and greater education and awareness, officials say.
The 6.8-magnitude quake struck at 10:54 a.m. on Ash Wednesday. Only one death was attributed to the earthquake, by heart attack. Still, 300 to 400 people were injured and considerable damage was done to property in Seattle and the south Puget Sound area, including to the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the old control tower at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and the Capitol in Olympia.
Similar to "intraslab" quakes centered near Olympia in 1949 and Tacoma in 1965, the Nisqually quake was about 32 miles deep, near where the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate is sliding underneath the North American plate, according to University of Washington seismologists.
The depth of the quake kept the damage to a minimum, compared to similar-sized earthquakes in California over the past 40 years, which were much closer to the surface, experts say.
Other significant local earthquake faults, however, are located much closer to the surface, between roughly six and 15 miles deep.
These include faults in Seattle, Tacoma, and one that runs along the southern shore of Whidbey Island. This fault runs between Victoria, B.C., and North Bend, traversing Snohomish County roughly from the southern half of Mukilteo to Echo Lake.
There's also a fault in the Utsalady area of Camano Island, according to the UW.
The South Whidbey fault is one of two that has Snohomish County officials the most nervous, Pennington said. The other is the Cascadia subduction zone off the Washington coast, which has the capability of producing a quake as big as the 9.1 quake that caused the deadly tsunami in Asia in 2004, UW experts say.
More extensive mapping of local quake faults has been done in the past decade, said John Vidale, a UW professor of earth and space sciences and director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, which coordinates monitoring of earthquakes and volcanic activity in Washington and Oregon.
There's some disagreement among seismologists about the South Whidbey fault, he said. Some believe it extends as far as Yakima.
"We can see faults all along the way, it's just a question of whether they all connect," Vidale said.
The number of seismic monitors in the network and their sophistication have grown dramatically in the past decade, thanks to increases in state and federal funding, he said.
This would have happened even without the Nisqually quake, Vidale said, but the event did provide more information about liquefaction, which occurs when the shaking pushes groundwater to the surface to liquefy the soil. A new array of sensors has been deployed in Seattle to record liquefaction, he said.
In areas where this happens -- often on fill dirt or in areas with high water tables, Vidale said -- it's bad news for buildings.
Training for recognizing hazards in damaged buildings has sharply increased among officials in the county since the Nisqually quake, said Lyn Gross, director of the Snohomish County Emergency Services Coordinating Agency. With federal grants, the agency coordinates emergency efforts in cities in south Snohomish and north King counties.
Building officials, inspectors, public works personnel, police officers and firefighters have taken the training, she said.
Based on the activity of the county Department of Emergency Management, that response will be more coordinated, Pennington said.
"Instead of just rushing out and being on scene, we stay within our confines and our building and coordinate on a really large scale on a local level," he said.
The county's emergency operations center is located at Paine Field. The soil there is among the most stable in the county, Pennington said.
Despite the technological advances and increased awareness, however, there's still no way to predict the moment a major quake will hit.
"The only thing that keeps me really awake at night is the risk of catastrophic earthquake," Pennington said.
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439;
Story tags » EarthquakeEmergency ManagementEmergency Planning

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