'We're just really, really lucky,' governor says

Thursday, March 1st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SEATTLE (AP) _ From the doorway of the downtown Sheraton Hotel, valet Mark Stanton watched glass-and-steel skyscrapers swaying and flexing in ways he never thought possible under the power of the region's strongest earthquake in a half-century.

``I watched this whole hotel shimmy,'' Stanton said. ``I didn't know glass could flex like that.''

The 6.8-magnitude earthquake, centered about 35 miles southwest of Seattle, was felt Wednesday as far away as southern Oregon and Canada. A mild aftershock with a preliminary magnitude of 3.4 was recorded early Thursday. There were no additional reports of damage.

Of the 250 injuries directly linked to the quake, all but a few were minor and none was considered critical.

Because the depth of the quake was 33 miles underground, the Earth's crust absorbed much of the shock, scientists said.

``We're just really, really lucky,'' Gov. Gary Locke said after surveying the region by helicopter.

Locke declared a state of emergency. He said Thursday that precise damage figures would not be available until buildings were examined by structural engineers, but it would easily top $1 billion.

``We believe the damage could go into the billions of dollars when you calculate not only property damage and the cost of repair but also the economic impact of lost wages, people who aren't working, businesses not in operation,'' Locke said on NBC's ``Today.''

Locke, his wife and two children were among residents forced out of their homes by the earthquake. Cracks appeared in the brick walls of the governor's mansion and books and pictures flew off the walls, he said.

But officials said the million of dollars of investments the state and cities put into stabilizing buildings and bridges apparently paid off. While brick and shattered glass littered the streets, there was no widespread structural damage.

Most buildings constructed in Seattle since the mid-1970s were built to a uniform code designed to withstand strong earthquakes.

The Space Needle, where more than two dozen people rode out Wednesday's quake from 600 feet above the city, was built to handle a 9.1-magnitude quake. Twenty minutes after the shaking stopped, the elevators and structure, a landmark dating from the 1962 World's Fair, were declared safe.

``It was like a rolling ship in the ocean,'' said Daryl Stevens, who was on the observation deck. The tower's facilities director, Rick Harris, declared it ``the best ride in town.''

``The code worked, but it wasn't tested to the full extent,'' said Bill Steele, a seismology lab coordinator at the University of Washington.

Vikram Prakash, an associate professor at the university's architecture department, said the devastation from January's 7.9-magnitude quake in India was partly due to contractors skimping on materials. Nearly 20,000 people died in that earthquake and entire cities were leveled.

Building codes here require structures to be able to withstand certain amounts of movement, Prakash said. If they hadn't been followed, he said, ``I'm sure we would have seen a lot more (damage).''

The earthquake, the largest in the Northwest in 52 years, hit at 10:54 a.m., 35 miles southwest of Seattle and 33 miles underground, according to the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo.

In Seattle and in Portland, Ore., 140 miles from the epicenter, the shaking sent people diving under desks and running into streets. Showers of bricks crushed cars, and three people in the Seattle area were seriously injured when they were struck by falling debris.

A woman in her 60s died of a heart attack at about the time of the quake. But the medical examiner's office said it couldn't attribute her death to the earthquake with certainty.

``The ground felt like it was Jell-O, cars were swaying, trucks were swaying,'' said Tim Jacobson, who works at Seattle Air Cargo.

At the state Capitol in Olympia, 11 miles from the epicenter, people screamed as the lights went out and plaster fell from the ceiling. Cracks appeared in the supports of the massive stone dome.

``If that rascal had tumbled down, it would have been all over,'' Sen. Bob Morton said.

Hundreds of thousands of people across the region temporarily lost power. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was closed for several hours, and U.S. Highway 101 buckled in several places.

However, the state Department of Transportation said there were no reports of major damage to bridges, as San Francisco faced after the deadly 7.1-magnitude World Series quake in 1989. In Washington state, a $65 million retrofitting program that began in 1990 improved more than 300 bridges.

``We would look at the retrofit program as having paid for itself and shown a success,'' said Ed Henley, a bridge management engineer. Though there were no collapses, some highways and bridges sustained lesser damage and a few were closed as a precaution until they could be checked over.

The earthquake struck the day President Bush proposed to kill a federal program designed to help communities protect themselves against the effects of natural disasters.

Bush's budget recommends saving $25 million by ending the Project Impact disaster preparedness program, saying it ``has not proven effective.'' Seattle was one of the nation's first Project Impact communities.

After the quake, Bush ordered Joe Allbaugh, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to travel to the region and assess the damage.

Earthquake magnitudes are calculated according to ground motion recorded on seismographs. An increase in one full number _ from 6.5 to 7.5, for example _ means the quake's magnitude is 10 times as great.

A quake with a magnitude of 6 can cause severe damage, while one with a magnitude of 7 can cause widespread, heavy damage. But damage can be far less in areas with good building codes.

A 5.9 quake struck near Washington's Pacific coast in 1999. A 6.5 earthquake hit in 1965, injuring at least 31 people. In 1949, a 7.1 quake near Olympia killed eight people.