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Disaster Zone: Lessons from Texas and Lebanon

February 28, 2021 was the 20th Anniversary of the Nisqually Earthquake that rocked Western Washington in 2001. We are now two thirds of the way toward our 30-year average of having what is called a Benioff Seismic Zone earthquake. In modern history, Benioff Seismic Zone earthquakes have occurred in 1949, 1965, and then in 2001 with the Nisqually Earthquake. These are the mildest type of earthquakes (Nisqually only measured a magnitude 6.8) we can experience, with other much more terrible and consequential earthquakes on other fault systems also anticipated for our region in the future.

Lessons from Texas

As we sit comfortably in our homes watching television, listening to the radio, or reading the news on an iPad, we have learned about all the things that the State of Texas did not do to become prepared for a cold winter’s blast.

When electricity fails, it rapidly points out the interdependencies of our modern system of utilities, water, sewer, communications, liquid fuel supplies, etc. With no power, you cannot pump, purify, treat, or communicate.

Depending on your perception of risk, an event like the 2021 Texas winter storm may either drive you to take action, delay action, or postpone it altogether. A 2011 winter storm in Texas is being highlighted as one that identified many of the types of problems the state could have expected to happen in the event of a severe winter storm and extreme cold. So why did the state do nothing proactive in the intervening years?

Plenty of excuses are given for not taking action to be ready for another winter storm. The cost of implementing fixes and what is called ‘disaster mitigation’ is likely number one. Needed improvements to prevent another occurrence can be debated endlessly until time passes and other more pressing and immediate priorities take their place in the public consciousness. This leads to elected officials putting all actions on the back burner if it is on the policy stove at all.

One of the things we will watch play out in Texas in the coming months is how long it will take for people to repair their damaged homes. The extent of the damage from broken water pipes and the cascading problems to nearby houses and buildings will not be solved with the snap of a finger. We are talking months for many people! Northwest earthquakes and the Texas winter storm experience both share long disaster recovery timelines.

The Lebanese Explosion

Why include Lebanon in this picture? It is because in August 2020 there was a fertilizer explosion in a Beirut port. The explosion led to 204 deaths, 7,500 injuries, $15 billion in property damage, and it left an estimated 300,000 people homeless. That fertilizer was being stored at this site was a known hazard for six years — yet no action was taken to address this.

The URM Time-Bomb

Likewise, unreinforced masonry buildings (URM) are a ticking time-bomb waiting to explode during the next significant earthquake in Western Washington. The consequences of not taking action will be monumental in people’s lives. People will die and/or be severely injured due to no action being taken to address this known hazard. Today, 20 years after the Nisqually Earthquake, we are still kicking the URM can down the road, hoping that nothing will happen on “our” watch.

The New Zealand Model

The lessons learned from Texas and Lebanon should serve as a call to action to do all that we can to avoid a similar fate with URM buildings. Here perhaps we can take some cues from the government of New Zealand. In the aftermath of a destructive 7.8 magnitude earthquake that occurred on November 14, 2016, the New Zealand government took legislative action to assist the earthquake-affected areas to respond to and recover from the impacts of the earthquake. The program, which mixed enforcement with assistance, has been deemed a success because of its people-centered approach that guided building owners through the URM updating process.

As a nation and a people, we are highly reactive to disasters — as illustrated by New Zealand’s actions, which happened after their earthquake. We can wait for the event to happen, bury the bodies, and clean up the mess, or we can take proactive action now to avoid what will almost certainly be a devastating day of reckoning.

Please see an earlier Disaster Zone blog on the issues surrounding URM buildings.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Eric Holdeman

Eric is a nationally known emergency manager and consultant. He has 28 years of emergency management experience, having served at the federal, state (Washington), and local government (King County) level, as well as in the nonprofit sector. He is the Principal for Eric Holdeman and Associates and serves the Director for the Center for Regional Disaster Resilience, which is part of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER).

He is a prolific writer, authoring numerous articles for professional journals and opinion pieces for local, regional and national newspapers including the Washington Post. He is a Senior Fellow and contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine, where he blogs about emergency management and homeland security at Eric also hosts the Disaster Zone podcast.

Eric is writing as a guest author. The views expressed in guest columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.