Hundreds of buildings in Whatcom County land on state earthquake safety list

A total of 218 buildings in Whatcom County have been identified as the kind that are “prone to partial or complete collapse” in an earthquake, according to Washington state’s first statewide inventory of brick and stone structures built before 1958.

Most of the listed buildings are in Bellingham, although there are a couple in Blaine.

Among them is the State Bank of Blaine at 684 Peace Portal Drive, built in 1899; Bellingham City Hall at 210 Lottie St., built in 1939; and the Whatcom Museum of History and Art at 121 Prospect St. in Bellingham, built in 1892.

Many commercial buildings and apartment complexes are on the list as well.

The private and public structures in Whatcom County were among the 4,493 statewide that are either unreinforced masonry buildings or believed to be, according to the Department of Commerce report.

Buildings confirmed to be URMs, as they’re known, in the state included 170 emergency facilities, such as hospitals and fire stations, and 219 school facilities.

Such “buildings contribute to the unique, distinct character of the state’s cities and towns,” the report states.

“While historic and frequently majestic, URM buildings are prone to partial or complete collapse in the event of an earthquake. Washington’s URM buildings suffered extensive damage during earthquakes in 1945, 1969 and 2001,” the report states.

The inventory focused on buildings constructed before 1958 with brick, stone or clay tile walls that support their floors and roofs.

Even if it had undergone seismic retrofitting, it remained on the list because “seismic upgrades vary widely in approach and extent,” the report states.

An emergency management official said information about such buildings isn’t new.

“This is a new report, but not a new issue,” said John Gargett, deputy director of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Division of Emergency Management. “It would be a massive effort to bring every building up to modern earthquake codes.”

The state inventory didn’t include single-family homes, although it did include multifamily residences such as apartments.

“As the state with the second-highest earthquake risk in the country, Washington must identify and validate the number of URM buildings and where they are located to understand the scope of the problem and what may be needed to address it,” the report states.

State officials hope the first inventory, which includes an online interactive map that people can drill down into, will be a foundation upon which state and local governments as well as the private sector can build.

The interactive map allows people to search for what are called suspected or identified URM buildings, although all of the 218 buildings singled out in Whatcom County fall in the suspected category.

Buildings in Seattle and Port Townsend were the confirmed URMs, according to the statewide report.

“Seattle has undertaken and completed an extensive validation effort of its buildings — something that has not been replicated at the state level and was not intended to be under the legislation authorizing our study,” Austin Scharff, of the state Department of Commerce, told The Bellingham Herald.

Port Townsend had 12 blocks surveyed as part of the report.

The study pulled from available data and databases, including from assessors’ offices. It also included a category titled “unknown,” for buildings that couldn’t be eliminated as the type that has created concern about earthquake safety.

As for what the public should make of the survey, Gargett said it’s an indication that people should have their buildings looked at. That includes single-family homes, even though they weren’t part of the survey.

While it’s a list of affected buildings, it doesn’t mean they’re unsafe or they’re going to fall down in an earthquake, he said.

“It doesn’t mean they aren’t, either,” Gargett said to The Bellingham Herald.

The best thing to do, he said, is to have a structural engineer look at a building and see how it would hold up in an earthquake.

Find the map

An online map of suspected unreinforced masonry buildings in Whatcom County can be found at dev.gartrellgroup.com/WashURMViewer/.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.