When Kirsten Harris-Talley’s house was built in 1902, there wasn’t much in the way of greenery. Old photos in the public record — dating back to the 1950s or ’60s, judging by the arrow-straight frame and bulb of a cab of the Oldsmobile parked out front — show a medium-sized tree polking out of stage left from behind the house, like a teenager attempting to fade into obscurity in a group photo.
Decades later, that wallflower has grown into its own and gotten company. The lot holds two old-growth evergreens that Harris-Talley and her family care for, one towering three stories into the air.
Harris-Talley likes the tree, but for all its beauty and distinctly Pacific Northwest vibe, it’s also a threat.
The house has withstood 10 earthquakes in its 117 years since the neighborhood took shape at the turn of the century, including powerful “deep” quakes in the 1960s and 2001. That tree is an evergreen reminder that next time could be different.
“It survived all of the previous earthquakes,” Harris-Talley said. “It’s the next one.”
She’s right to worry.
The ground upon which Seattle sits is a geological timebomb of three tectonic plates involved in slow-motion, violent conflict. Sometimes, their crushing movements result in shallow quakes that cause little damage or lasting impact. Sometimes, as in 2001, a “deep” quake costs the region billions.
And sometimes, in an event that hasn’t been seen in more than 300 years, an earthquake so powerful it can turn the soil under your feet to liquid and cause giant, concrete structures to sway like leaves in the wind rips through the region, leaving scars in the earth so profound they can be seen for centuries.
Seattle officials know that earthquake is coming. In fact, it is overdue. They know that recovery for such an event is not measured in months or years but decades.
Cities recover. Buildings can be repaired. Economies can be revived. The event will live on as a memory, then as a plaque and later as a story told in history books, a blip in the record, reduced from a shocking confrontation with our own insignificance in the face of the planet’s raw, insentient power to data points for use in an article such as this.
But recovery is uneven. Low-income communities, communities of color and any marginalized group will be hardest hit by the coming disaster. That seems obvious. But, experts say, they will be hardest hit by the recovery, too.
Facially neutral policies — or government policies that do not, as written, discriminate against a particular group — direct resources to those who need it the least, research suggests. Generational wealth for the White and rich will be bolstered. For everyone else, it will be destroyed.
The Seattle that comes back after The Big One may not look anything like the Seattle of today. The twin forces of gentrification and displacement will not be hindered by a disastrous earthquake — they will be turbocharged. And right now, there is no plan in place to stop that from happening.
Harris-Talley bought her home in Hillman City in 2004.
Three years prior, she and her then-boyfriend, now-husband Jason lived in an apartment in Capitol Hill. Harris-Talley worked in a brick building in the Cascade neighborhood — a section of town that would later be subsumed by the leviathan that became the South Lake Union tech hub.
Cascade was home to older buildings, and Harris-Talley’s office was no exception. That made what happened next even more terrifying.
At 10:54 a.m., the ground began to shake.
What would be known as the Nisqually Earthquake lasted 40 seconds. Buildings slumped like sad souffles. Power and communications services went out in a blink. Harris-Talley and her coworkers sheltered inside, venturing out only when they felt it was safe.
She was in a panic, unable to get
ahold of her boyfriend or get any information about what was going on. Without landlines, cell phones or the social media-cum-surveillance systems of Facebook and Twitter (not founded for another three and five years, respectively), there was no other way to communicate.
“There was really not a known response,” Harris-Talley said. “People didn’t know what to do.”
Everything we know about The Big One says that the aftermath will be worse.
Nisqually lasted 40 seconds and caused between $1 billion and $4 billion in damages, according to some estimates. Approximately 400 people were injured, and one person died of a heart attack. The emergency response, repairs to the arterial roadways and damage to public buildings cost about $36 million.
The Big One will likely have sustained shaking for up to five minutes, 7.5 times longer and exponentially more powerful than Nisqually.
Seattle officials haven’t done their own analysis of the potential impacts, but researchers out of Portland have. The Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) looked at three counties — Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington — and assessed the potential destruction in a variety of scenarios.
The worst case — a powerful 9.0 subduction zone quake during the rainy season — is devastating.
Roughly 30,600 people are expected to be displaced and in need of shelter. They expect 15,645 injuries. Of those, 3,654 will require hospitalization.
Nearly 900 people will lose their lives.
Disaster response immediately after an event is fairly straightforward: Try not to be the one who needs rescuing.
Have food and water on hand. Prep a go-bag with key documents and supplies. Plan a meeting site with friends and family. Make sure those packets of drugs in your first-aid kit haven’t expired. Be ready to wait it out until help arrives.
But long-term? When your housing is damaged, your income is on hold, your prescriptions run out and your child care is gone? When the resources you need to “wait it out” run dry?
That’s harder, and that’s where inequities in disaster recovery take root.
When Harris-Talley bought her house in 2004, the realtor didn’t mention earthquake insurance, even though homeowners and renters in the south end, the Duwamish Valley and Interbay areas are likely to need it the most.
Approximately 15 percent of Seattle’s topsoil is prone to liquefaction, when the ground under your feet becomes a non-Newtonian fluid, veering between liquid and solid states as the pressure is applied. The south end, Duwamish Valley and Interbay neighborhoods contain the majority of Seattle’s liquefaction zones, according to the city.
They are also places highly populated by communities of color.
Harris-Talley asked about the possibility of earthquake insurance, but her home didn’t qualify, she said.
“Because of the age of our home and the type of home it is and the building grade of our home,” she said, ticking down the reasons.
Official emergency response plans developed by Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management recommend earthquake insurance, as an add-on to traditional homeowners’ insurance. A regular homeowner plan will not protect the resident against loss from a catastrophic event like an earthquake, which means people have to buy extra protection if they want to be made whole.
Only 10 percent of Washingtonian homeowners have earthquake insurance, according to the Office of the Insurance Commissioner.
There are pros and cons to earthquake insurance. If you can get it, the monthly premiums are expensive, and benefits kick in only if the damage meets a proportion of the value of your home, meaning you could pay premiums for years and never see benefits even if an earthquake occurs.
If you don’t, you run the risk of losing everything.
That’s why some emergency management professionals like Scott Miles, who has consulted on earthquake recovery around the world, caution that insurance isn’t the only way to secure a home.
“Emergency managers tend to push insurance and engineers and half of social sciences tend to push personal mitigation,” Miles said. “If you asked me specific advice and you had limited means, it would be hard for me not to say focus on saving up money or taking out a loan to bolt your house to a foundation. Do whatever you can to make your home more resilient.”
Owns and own-nots
On a Saturday morning, 19 people gathered at Rainier Valley Library to talk about earthquake retrofits.
The Office of Emergency Management holds these classes in various locations throughout the year to teach homeowners how to prepare their houses to best survive an earthquake.
The city doesn’t offer a lot of options beyond a streamlined permitting process for retrofits. You pay for them yourself. But, for those who can afford it, it’s a small price for protecting their investment.
Of course, none of this helps renters, who make up 51 percent of Seattle’s residents.
“Empirical evidence that is out there really shows that renters are the ones that lag furthest behind,” Miles said. “Cross that with demographics and it is also very well shown that minority renters are typically those who lag furthest behind.”
Renters don’t generally have the authority to paint their walls blue, much less a voice in the disposition of their building damaged in an earthquake. They also don’t get much help from local government.
If a building owner decides to sell a complex under normal circumstances, the city of Seattle requires them to pay relocation assistance.
Not so for a natural disaster.
“The owner/landlord isn’t responsible for paying relocation assistance when damage is caused by an act of nature,” said Wendy Shark, spokesperson for the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, in an email.
It doesn’t get better. If housing units are damaged and the supply of housing is reduced, the laws of economics dictate that prices for housing will go up.
“In a constrained market, for either a new place or temporary place, you’re competing with wealthier folks who don’t want to be in a partially damaged home while it gets fixed,” Miles said.
That means that lower-income people already renting will now be vying for units with people who could already afford homes, driving up the cost of rent unless local government steps in with rent freezes or caps.
Surely if their housing is destroyed and other rents are going up, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will step in?
Well, sure. But you may not want them to.
POC shaken the most
When Junia Howell lived in Houston, Texas, she used a bike to commute to work.
She remembers when the hurricanes or flash floods came — the street she used to bike to work on became a river.
But on the other side of town, things were different. The impacts of these smaller-scale, regular disasters were lessened near the university compared with her neighborhood, which, according to the Census Bureau, was almost exclusively inhabited by people of color.
Howell, now an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, considers herself a race scholar, and a quantitative one at that. When a colleague asked her to employ those quant skills to look at the impact of natural disasters on demographic groups, she obliged.
Howell assumed that marginalized people suffer more than White people after a disaster. Even so, her results surprised her.
“I did not expect to find this empirically,” Howell said.
Howell’s results didn’t just say that White households fared better than non-White households after a major disaster. They showed her that White households increased their wealth after a disaster, even compared with other White households of similar means that lived disaster-free.
That’s because facially neutral disaster relief policies designed by the federal government to help people recover after a major event funnel money to White households.
An example: Some federal relief comes in the form of low-interest loans, but Black and Brown households have worse credit than White families because of a lack of access to credit-building opportunities and because their families were prevented from developing generational wealth. So they don’t qualify.
Homeowners with a low-interest loan can build their home back better than it was before, increasing its value and their household’s wealth.
A renter may get a one-time check.
The bottom line drawn from the data that Howell studied was clear.
“Whites are making money from natural disasters where people of color and marginalized people are losing,” Howell said.
Sounding the alarm
Government can’t control where or when disasters hit, nor whom they hurt.
It can ensure that its disaster response alleviates inequity, or minimally doesn’t make it worse.
Andrea Caupain is the executive director at Byrd Barr Place, an organization in the Central District that fights gentrification and displacement. Byrd Barr Place works with 15,000 families a year, helping them get housing assistance and other help like food and home energy repair.
Caupain says some of her clients are having these conversations about the coming quake, especially ones that lived through Nisqually.
“Those older than 55, they know it’s coming. They feel it,” she said.
That makes them better prepared for that short-term recovery. It does little for what comes next.
The Office of Emergency Management prepared a plan to ready itself and civilians for oncoming disasters. It is a flexible document, loaded with questions to ensure that an emergency response is ready and thorough “if we have amnesia,” said Barb Graff, director of the Office of Emergency Management.
Race equity is baked in, Graff said.
“Providing equal treatment simply means everyone gets 600 bucks,” Graff said, pulling out a random number. “Equal treatment does not provide equitable treatment.”
Local governments cannot make “gifts” of funds, meaning they cannot use their budgets to help devise programs to repair homes or get people into housing. Still, they can direct roughly a quarter of aid provided by the federal government through fema to people who need it most, Graff said.
That doesn’t comfort Caupain. It takes a lot of capacity to even know how to get help after a disaster, putting more Black and Brown people at the back of the line for aid, she said.
Promises of equity, in the face of a mountain of evidence demonstrating that it has not been attained, don’t mean much. Caupain is afraid it won’t be enough.
And it makes her blood boil. “When I ask them further,” Caupain said. “ ‘What are you doing functionally and behaviorally to really ensure equity? Tell me what you’re doing behaviorally that changes how you have people at the table. How you’re being inclusive? How you’re supporting people who need the most help?’ They can’t answer that question.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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