Thursday, May 15, 2008

City Releases Quake List and District Disputes It

I had seen a story in the PI yesterday about a list of 575 buildings in Seattle that had been identified as problematic in a major earthquake (such as the one in China this week). On the list? Two schools, West Seattle High and John Marshall. I was quite surprised to see West Seattle as it was completely overhauled within the last 10 years. I mentioned this to Steve Sundquist last night at the Strategic Plan meeting (as West Seattle High is in his district). He said he had seen an e-mail from district staff saying they were disputing it but knew nothing else.

So this morning's PI had another story. This story included TOPS on the list as well. So here's what the City has to say:

"Alan Justad, deputy director for the city's Department of Planning and Development, which commissioned the privately prepared report, said the survey was meant to be preliminary. The listing, Justad said, had to include all potentially high-risk masonry buildings -- whether retrofitted or not -- because the city has not yet established standard criteria for judging whether such improvements made to older buildings are complete or sufficient.

"We don't have a standard yet," he said. That's the point of doing this inventory of older masonry buildings, Justad said, who added that the survey would continue and undergo further refinement. He said they released the findings in this incomplete form in part to prompt a public discussion early on in the process of developing policy."

"The survey, done under a $58,000 contract by the private engineering firm Reid Middleton, focused on areas in Seattle with higher concentrations of older buildings made of brick, stone, concrete block or other forms of "unreinforced masonry" construction. The report identified -- from an outside "sidewalk assessment" only -- 575 of about 1,000 such buildings in the city."

"It's true that the report didn't make the distinction between buildings that had been retrofitted or not, but most of them clearly have not been," he said. And again, Justad said, it's not at all clear yet what would constitute an adequate upgrade for any given building."

Naturally, the district calls foul (as do many of the property owners). A cursory sidewalk examination is okay for a preliminary examination but don't release that list especially if it contains schools, hospitals or other public buildings. The private firm claims it would be unlikely they would get access to all buildings to check (did they ask?) and so didn't know if any were retrofitted (again, did you ask?)

What does the district say?

"David Tucker, spokesman for Seattle Public Schools, criticized the report as "erroneous" for including those retrofitted schools in the list of potentially high-risk buildings.

"This report may concern parents whose students attend those schools that were named, when in fact those schools are some of the safest in the district," he said."

"Building codes have constantly changed in regard to earthquake safety, but Seattle schools are retrofitted to withstand a quake and still be usable, said Dan Gillmore, the district's construction manager. During the historic renovation of West Seattle High School in 2002, for example, the school got a seismic retrofit. A powerful earthquake might be able to shake some bricks loose, he said, "But the bones of the building are fine."

I think what Mr. Gillmore says is likely the case. But there is a major point of understanding to be made about seismic upgrades and retrofitting within what he says. (And I have tried to point this out during discussions about capital projects.)

The overwhelming majority of buildings are remodels. Meaning, we rarely build a brand-new building from the ground-up. Sometimes it's because of historic meaning but mostly it's because if the district did tear down and build new, they would have to meet current building standards (including seismic) and that's a lot more expensive to do. So they "remodel".

Seismic standards for remodel versus rebuilt are different. The remodeled standards are not as high as the rebuilt standards. So when the district says seismic upgrades, it means to the standards for remodeled buildings.

Regulating agencies have come up with their best estimations of what is needed for a building to withstand a certain level of earthquake. The most important goal is to keep the building from injuring the people inside (that is how most of the Chinese victims died from buildings collapsing on them). But, as Mr. Gillmore says, some damage could occur. I'm not sure I agree with his "withstand an earthquake and still be usable". I have never heard him or anyone in the capital project phrase it quite like that before. It has always been about keeping the inhabitants safe. But most safety experts will tell you to get out of a building after the quake because there still could be broken glass, fallen objects, etc. that could be problematic. I'm pretty sure that most school plans have the student evacuated out to the school grounds and not remaining in the building.

I know someone will write and say, "But all the school buildings withstood the Nisqually quake." My reply is that was NOT a major earthquake. A good shaker to be sure but a real earthquake will be a totally different experience. (And FYI, you might ask at your school; does each class have an earthquake kit, what is the school plan during and after an earthquake and have they ever practiced it; what should parents do or not do after an earthquake.)

All the district need do is contact this company that the City hired and show them the upgrades to West Seattle High and TOPS. John Marshall is being closed which doesn't necessarily make it moot but being on this list gives one more reason for the district, in the future, to say they should sell it off (which I believe they will).


seattle citizen said...

'...two of the schools listed...already have undergone major seismic upgrades, and the third, John Marshall Alternative High School, is being closed in June.

David Tucker, spokesman for Seattle Public Schools, criticized the report as 'erroneous' for including those retrofitted schools in the list of potentially high-risk buildings.

'This report may concern parents whose students attend those schools that were named, when in fact those schools are some of the safest in the district,' he said."

Though it is not evident in this article (and in Mr. Tucker's words about the schools), the students at Marshall ARE relatively safe. For now. Marshall had seismic work done a few years ago, and the building is built like a tank, surviving many earthquakes in its eighty-two year history.
Strange that the Marshall seismic work wasn't mentioned, and also strange that the safety of the students in the Marshall building NOW apparently is of little import. I'm glad, though, that the parents/guardians and students of WS and TOPS can rest easy. Yea.

Melissa Westbrook said...

My apologies, I was aware of the work done at Marshall and just didn't mention it. There are many good reasons not to give up on that building, not least of which is the prime location near the freeway and the solidness of the building.

seattle citizen said...

Melissa, no apologies necessary, I was commenting on the PI article and how it's written: everybody can rest assured because "schools are safe" while it isn't mentioned that Marshall was retrofitted. So the impression left is that everyone should relax, WS and TOPS are safe, Marshall is closing...but what about the students in the Marshall building now? They should have mentioned the seismic on Marshall, otherwise it's as if it currently no longer exists, or matters...Which, of course (?) it still does.

Unknown said...

Wait - John Marshall isn't closing, my child a Loyal Heights Elementary is slated to go there next year. So what is the retrofit status at that school?