SEATTLE- In the spring of 2000, Andrew and Diane Ryan purchased their dream home, a private three-bedroom
A-frame nestled into a steep hillside overlooking Puget Sound. Less than a year later, the couple and their two children were forced into a hotel, then an extended-stay hotel, then a rental home-where they remained for two years.
That nomadic nightmare began suddenly and without warning a few minutes before 11 a.m. on Feb. 28, 2001. With a Japanese foreign exchange student sleeping inside, the foundation to the Ryans' home dropped 8 inches, sinking into the shifting earth that rumbled beneath it.
A 6.8-magnitude earthquake, centered near the Nisqually delta in South Puget Sound, wrought significant damage on 14 dwellings in the Ryans' Maplewild neighborhood. Thousands of other structures throughout the greater Seattle area sustained damage as well.
But for most residents of western Washington, the Nisqually earthquake rippled through the region like waves on a pond-temporary, unobtrusive, and easily forgotten. Its epicenter buried more than 30 miles beneath the earth's surface, the high-powered quaver destroyed no major thoroughfares, toppled no skyscrapers, and killed no one.
As the quake's five-year anniversary approaches, remnants of its destruction are few. Even the Ryans, having moved back to their newly earthquake-retrofitted home, are once again enjoying the routines of normalcy. Most natural disasters throughout the country follow a similar script, leaving only fading anecdotes and a blip on a region's history by the time five years have passed.
But the trigger-happy inclination of President George W. Bush to declare national disasters-he did so roughly every three days during the first four years of his administration-pushes the combined financial cost of such mercifully minor calamities well beyond that of once-in-a-lifetime catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina. While national scrutiny and criticism more closely follow the expenditure of resources in blockbuster events, the improper handling of yearly storms, floods, and tremors holds greater sum potential for waste.
At the same time, few taxpayers realize how woefully short of covering the costs is most disaster assistance. Government aid to Nisqually victims reached $200 million, and insurance companies supplied another $315 million. But estimates of the total damages from the quake ranged between $2 billion and $3.5 billion. Charities and wealthy individuals helped make up a portion of that disparity, but some unprepared people were left without remedy.
Mr. Bush loosed the resources of federal relief in the Nisqually quake before local officials could accurately assess the level of damage. Within days, FEMA officials swooped down to the Boeing Field tarmac as though sporting a giant "S" on the chests of their tailored suits. Bureaucratic chaos ensued. "FEMA responded with the wrong resources too quickly," recalled Jim Mullen, Seattle's former director of emergency management who has since moved on to hold that position for the entire state. "They turned it into a campaign boiler room. With their new director, they were showing off."
Rather than allow local authorities to direct them according to comprehensive disaster plans, FEMA workers began posing for news cameras with unnecessary door-to-door visits and daily politically motivated announcements of what the federal government was doing to help. FEMA efforts were equally showy in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with former director Michael Brown betraying the organization's improper motives in a memo outlining the duty of employees to "convey a positive image" of federal relief.
The focus on appearance over substance crippled even the simplest post-Nisqually operations. A FEMA hotline, set up to field telephone questions, often disseminated outdated or incorrect information. FEMA's public relations department informed people not to worry about whether their homes were bolted to the foundation but to check instead for wind damage-advice indicative of officials more familiar with hurricane relief. "Those things coordinated nationally were done badly with a gross insensitivity and mostly with a view to looking good," Mr. Mullen said. "We spent a lot of time resolving conflicts that arose because they told people inappropriate things in public meetings." The FEMA regional office did not return WORLD's repeated requests for comment.
But FEMA's presence was not wholly despised. Hundreds of homeowners, businesses, and nonprofit organizations turned to federal aid as their only recourse. Even Mr. Ryan, who had protected his largest investment with earthquake insurance, applied for funds to help cover his deductible. "They tried to be very helpful and respond," he said. "People that had minor damages under the $5,000 range-for chimneys and heat systems-they got money right away and very easily. Ours was a little more convoluted than that. It took several months."
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."
FEMA warns that the top cause of death in major earthquakes is falling interior furnishings. The average house could secure all such dangers for less than $100. "It's the most inexpensive insurance you can get," Mr. Reese said. "You can't buy insurance after you're dead."
Final tallies of Nisqually's damage indicated that most people had not insured their buildings' exteriors, either. The Seattle Chocolates manufacturing plant was among 29 buildings within the city red-tagged and rendered illegal to enter. Uninsured and ideologically averse to accepting government assistance, owners Rick and Jean Thompson coughed up a $700,000 personal investment to relocate their entire operation in a matter of weeks. Already in financial turmoil, the move placed the business on the brink of extermination.
Today, the company's profits could hardly be sweeter as it struggles to keep pace with demand. Through its past difficulties, Seattle Chocolates learned innumerable lessons, becoming a model for business accountability. Sensitive records are now copied and stored out of state. Workers are drilled randomly on emergency procedures. Interior equipment is locked down. And, perhaps most important, the building is insured. "It's unfortunate, but I guess it's our nature, that it takes something happening for us to remember, 'Oh yeah, I guess we should be prepared,'" said communications manager Ellen Gengler. "We believe we should do as much as we possibly can-do all those things we can control-instead of just waiting and hoping for [FEMA]."
Seattle business owners, much more than residents, have begun emulating such a posture of responsibility. "Many businesses and building landlords in the area have fortified their structures to make them more earthquake-resilient," said Niel Campbell, Seattle Chocolates' vice president of operations. "Insurance coverage is still a prohibitive proposition for most small business owners. What one has to consider beyond the insurance coverage is whether or not they can sustain the litigating details of insurance claims adjustments."
That proprietors are even working through such issues is evidence of progress. Meanwhile, residential districts seem only to regress in preparedness. For years, Seattle had developed a block-by-block program in which neighborhoods stored emergency supplies and developed specific disaster plans. Since Nisqually, the city has elected to significantly scale back the program. Few communities harbor enough resolve to sustain such efforts without government prompting.
But the region is not without its own resources. Emergency management officials have trained roughly 8,000 relief volunteers for varying tasks, and more than 100 amateur radio personnel are ready to disseminate critical information throughout the state.
Local agencies responded well to the Nisqually tremor and learned valuable lessons to employ in future catastrophes. "By the time I got to the office within 30 minutes, the mayor was there, our stations were manned, and we went about our checklist of checking bridges, checking critical facilities, and getting word out of what was going on," Mr. Mullen recalled of his Seattle emergency management department. "Our plan worked pretty well."
Mr. Mullen is confident city and state authorities would succeed again if faced with a calamity of greater magnitude. He told WORLD that FEMA's track record should disqualify federal officials from primary relief responsibilities: "If this ever happens again, we'll meet them on the tarmac in a hangar at Boeing Field and say, 'You can either get back on the plane to go back where you came from or you can follow these ground rules. In our state, the locals are in charge.'"
That's a message disaster victims nationwide should hear, too.