Shake, rattle & toll

"Shake, rattle & toll" Continued...

Issue: "Nuke nightmare," Feb. 25, 2006

In the end, Mr. Ryan elected not to use the government money because of the strict building regulations attached to it. Many others had no choice. FEMA spent $56 million on minor repairs and temporary housing. The government-run Small Business Administration (SBA) approved $83 million in low-interest emergency loans-a relatively modest number on the scale of disaster relief. The SBA supplied 50 times that amount in loans following the 1994 Northridge earthquake in southern California.

Seattle restaurant owner Chrystal McCoy benefited greatly from an SBA loan of $158,000 to repair her damaged building. But the year-long hassle she encountered in acquiring a second $100,000 loan to help defray equipment damages soured her outlook on the process. "I don't know if I would have the stomach to go through it again," she told the Puget Sound Business Journal.

A $995,000 SBA loan, one of the largest approved, helped Seattle business owner Rick Wyatt move his popular downtown nightclub into a new building several blocks away. Mr. Wyatt faced relatively few hang-ups securing such funding for his edgy, red-light-district establishment. For one upstanding religious organization, on the other hand, procuring federal help proved a political and legal nightmare.

Connie Kanter flipped on the lights last month in the Seattle Hebrew Academy's newly constructed atrium. The Jewish school's director of development and business operations waved her hand toward a centralized elevator shaft and the wall of bricks behind it. "This used to be outside the building in what was sort of the back yard," she said.

When the Nisqually quake rattled the 1909 structure, it compromised significant portions of its century-old masonry and aging interior plaster. Rather than simply restore the building to its previous condition, school officials elected to undertake a massive retrofit project. With no earthquake insurance, they turned to the government-and ran headlong into the cold, stone wall of church-state politics.

Of the 269 applications for assistance FEMA received from nonprofit organizations in the Nisqually aftermath, the Seattle Hebrew Academy was one of only two deemed ineligible for funding. An appeal to FEMA's regional director provided no remedy as he ruled against the academy's status as a "private nonprofit facility" because it was not "open to the general public." The school admits only Jewish students. Again, FEMA did not respond to WORLD's persistent inquiries on that case.

Subsequent academy appeals to higher authorities also proved fruitless, until school president Louis Treiger contacted the White House. "When we were denied, we went to FEMA's boss," he said. In December 2002, almost two years after the disaster struck, President Bush granted the Orthodox day school's appeal.

The influx of more than a million federal dollars helped buoy the academy's massive private fundraising campaign. "In terms of the construction side, they're not bringing you to where you want to be retrofitted. They're bringing you to where you were before," Ms. Kanter said of the government assistance. "You can't imagine the federal government is going to take a building that's older and doesn't have modern earthquake proofing and put all that in for you." The academy raised close to $9 million of extra private support to upgrade the facility's "medieval construction," as one contractor put it.

But the structure remains uninsurable, its three-story outer walls of now-reinforced bricks still considered too brittle for earthquake coverage. Should a subsequent disaster befall the area, as seismologists fully expect, the academy will once again require government aid-a prospect that precedent now ensures for all religious institutions. "It should be a lot easier for religious schools in New Orleans today to get FEMA assistance because of the Seattle Hebrew Academy decision," Mr. Treiger said.

For all the positive undoing of religious discrimination, however, increasing the dole of government disaster dollars is fraught with negatives. Anticipating guaranteed federal bailout hands local communities and individuals a disincentive to plan properly for disaster.

Dean Reese, the president of Quake Hold, a company that manufactures products to secure household items in the event of an earthquake, is continually surprised by the apathy of those who live directly over active fault lines. In the weeks following the Nisqually tremor, Mr. Reese teamed with local fire departments to hold free seminars on interior home retrofitting at area hardware stores. No one showed. Sales of Quake Hold products in the Northwest leveled rapidly after a brief initial spike. "People thought, 'Oh, that could never happen again,'" Mr. Reese said. "The people of western Washington are in denial about the threat that lies under their feet."


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