Seattle Girds Against Earthquake Damage

Many Seattle homeowners are retrofitting their houses against the threat of earthquakes. The trend toward reinforcement began in the wake of this year's string of costly and deadly disasters.

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The loss of so many homes to hurricane winds and flooding in the Gulf region has made a deep impression on other homeowners even far outside the hurricane zone. Since Katrina, the city of Seattle has seen a boom in the business of retrofitting houses to stand up better in earthquakes. NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

Last year, software entrepreneur Harvey Metulski(ph) bought a century-old house on Seattle's expensive Capitol Hill. It's a substantial old place with great heavy beams across the high ceilings.

Mr. HARVEY METULSKI (Software Entrepreneur): The house itself is very solid. The guy who built it was a timber baron, so he could afford lots of lumber, but they didn't think about earthquakes.

KASTE: There's nothing connecting the massive house to its foundation. It just sits there held down by its weight. The side-to-side movement of an earthquake could make it slide right down into the street. So Metulski is having the whole thing bolted down.

(Soundbite of power tools)

KASTE: In the basement, contractors have cut away the drywall to expose the area where the house rests on its foundation. All along this line, Juan Lopez(ph) is attaching flexible steel plates with specialized sets of bolts and washers. It's precision work but Lopez says it has a simple engineering purpose.

Mr. JUAN LOPEZ: Keep the house in the same place.

KASTE: Lopez's boss says since Katrina, he's fielded five times the usual number of calls from homeowners. Other retrofit contractors report a similar surge in business. Inez Pierce(ph) is the director of the city's disaster mitigation program, which trains homeowners on how to bolt down their houses. Her phone has also been ringing constantly since Katrina. She says she's not particularly surprised that a flood in New Orleans has got Seattle residents thinking about earthquakes.

Ms. INEZ PIERCE (Disaster Mitigation Program, Seattle, Washington): I think it comes down to a personal level, watching people suffering and experiencing loss and thinking how they would deal with that same experience themselves.

KASTE: In Seattle, an earthquake retrofit averages about $5,000. Pierce says it is a lot of money for some people, but given the sky-high cost of real estate, more and more homeowners want to protect their investment.

Ms. PIERCE: If you think about how much people have tied into their homes, it's a significant cost. So some people potentially are living beyond their means even in trying to cover their home cost. So they don't have a lot of flexibility.

KASTE: And insurance won't necessarily protect that investment either. Contractor Eric Jackson, owner of Sound Seismic retrofitting company, says his clients tell him that the high deductible quake policies are not much comfort.

Mr. ERIC JACKSON (Owner, Sound Seismic): When they've done the research on insurance companies, they realize that, you know, for a typical house in Seattle, if the value is $400,000, a 10 or 20 percent deductible is $40,000 or $80,000.

KASTE: On top of that Jackson says they don't seem to have much faith in the coverage.

Mr. JACKSON: I think that many of our homeowners aren't counting on insurance, and they're not--just like they're not counting on Social Security.

KASTE: That lack of confidence has been fed in part by news stories coming out of the Gulf describing disputes with insurance companies over payouts, but on a more basic level, says city emergency official Inez Pierce, Hurricane Katrina gave people a stark demonstration of what it would be like to lose one's home and she says many people outside the hurricane zone have come to the conclusion that they should not count on institutions, be it in insurance companies or the government, to keep it from happening to them.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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