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The Big One May Smack Seattle With a $33 Billion Hit

A UW Bothell business professor says that the Puget Sound region could suffer $33 billion in property damage and economic losses following a magnitude 6.7 earthquake along the Seattle Fault. More than 190,000 structures would be damaged or destroyed, communications and utility infrastructures paralyzed, and Seattle’s transportation grid severely affected, causing long-term transportation problems.

Professor Jacqueline Meszaros, who serves on the White House’s Scientific Subcommittee on Disaster Reduction, says that business owners have been lulled into complacency by the 2001 Nisqually earthquake (see “What Lies Beneath,” June 2001). Only one-third of Puget Sound business owners said that the Nisqually earthquake prompted them to be better prepared, she reports.

Because the Nisqually quake had a high magnitude number of 6.8 yet a relatively mild impact, it “seemed to make a lot of people feel confident that earthquakes are not a big risk,” Meszaros says. “The reality is that earthquakes are a big risk here and it’s important to make that risk vivid.”

Meszaros points out that an earthquake on the Seattle Fault would be similar to, if not worse than, the Northridge earthquake in the Los Angeles area in 1994 or the 1995 quake in Kobe, Japan, where economic losses are still being felt.

As is happening in post-Katrina New Orleans, Seattle may find that its local businesses will fail or relocate after a devastating quake. Even businesses with contingency plans could suffer if their suppliers do not have plans or are located in hard-hit areas, such as the Duwamish Valley.

The devastation of recent hurricanes has had a huge effect, Meszaros says. “There’s a huge flurry of interest, and experts in disaster preparation and assessment are all busy. This is what we call a ‘teachable moment.’ My impression is it will last about six months, and in that time we have to make as much progress as we possibly can in helping people learn about the risks.”

Meszaros was part of a team that assessed the impact of a 6.7 earthquake for the Washington Emergency Management Division. For a Web version of the report, see seattlescenario.eeri.org.