Thinking About Earthquakes when Buying a House in Seattle

NPR often traps me inside my car for longer than I want… there is always some interesting topic being discussed. This morning it was earthquakes. Sandi Doughton, science reporter for The Seattle Times, was talking about the inevitable mega quake, perhaps 9.0 magnitude, that is ‘due’ to hit the Pacific Northwest. I find this fascinating so I spent some time researching and thinking of how it might affect the location where you buy a house and what type of house you choose.

What Areas of Seattle Should I Avoid if Concerned About Earthquakes?

We can’t live in fear of what ‘might’ happen… but seriously, if the ‘Big One’ hits I am not so sure I would want to own a house on a cliff or hillside. As the earth gets moving, landslides are a huge concern for homes near cliffs… just look at what happened on Whidbey without any EQ activity.  Actually, for you cliff house owners, eventual erosion is probably more of your daily concern than anything else.

Another desirable spot that I might avoid is living next to the shoreline. The danger from a tsunami is small, Seattle is on the Sound, but if a tsunami hit the Olympic Coast it would cause rising water levels in Seattle. Cory and I joke that if this happens then maybe our house in Ballard would become waterfront… ha ha… OK the water would likely not reach as high as Whittier but Golden Gardens would be washed out as would buildings by the ship canal and what about condos below Pike Place or even Lake Washington water front homes? Lake WA is connected to the Sound!

If you are really concerned about areas that may be more affected by seismic activity, King County has maps you can view where they have estimated the areas of largest and smallest ‘ground acceleration’ from an earthquake. The map I find most interesting is the liquefaction, “Liquefaction is a phenomenon in which strong earthquake shaking causes a soil to rapidly lose its strength and behave like quicksand.” There are also maps for landslide hazard areas, flood, fire…

What Type of House to Avoid if Concerned About Earthquakes?

I don’t really know what makes for a ‘safer’ house in an earthquake but basically you wish your house to move with the motion of the earth, not be too rigid, but be firmly held together. I have had people ask me about brick houses and how they stand in earthquakes. I also don’t have a great answer for this but as I do research it seems that brick houses do not fare as well because they are so rigid. I suppose there is a reason why so many brick chimneys fall down in quakes. Then again brick houses stand better in fires…. so there are benefits. I have heard that some insurance companies charge more for earthquake insurance on brick homes.

What Can I do to Make My Home More Safe from Earthquake Damage?

Regardless of house type, you might have to earthquake retrofit for your home to get earthquake insurance. Even if you opt not to get insurance, you may want to retrofit… which is essentially bolting your home to it’s foundation.

Besides that, all you can do is be prepared! Do some research on building Emergency Supplies and Kits. My family lived in California when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake hit. Our small, stucco house was fine but bookcases fell over, dishes flew out of cupboards and the place was a huge mess. Because of worry of aftershocks and gas leaks, we had to sleep in the car… good thing we had a family van, all five of us and the dog. Utilities were off and the neighbors emptied their fridges to share food. It was like one big block party, I actually remember it fondly, but what if there was not enough water or food? Make sure you have at least three days of water (about a gallon per person), non-persihable foods and first-aid kits available. It’s a little bit of work to put together, hopefully you never use it!

Well, that’s enough of that… after reading many articles and scientific reports about the Mega Quake I have this insane disaster movie playing in my head. I’ll forget about it soon but in the meantime I’ll make a disaster kit for my basement and it will make me feel better.