Capitol Campus on shaky ground

OLYMPIA - The ground floor of the John L. O'Brien Building on the Capitol Campus is alive these days with legislators, lobbyists and members of the public as they scurry to legislative hearings and engage in political talk that echoes through the marble hallways.

The lively scene gives way to deadly serious work in the three floors above where crews put the finishing touches on a $1.2 million project to strengthen the building before the next damaging earthquake strikes South Sound.

Seismic repairs are just a fraction of the $36.7 million cost of remodeling the 70-year-old building. The seismic work consists of five new reinforced concrete interior shear walls designed to hold the building together and metal framed walls to replace plaster and tile that gave way in the last earthquake.

Most important, they are designed to save lives.

“The building could be damaged beyond repair in the next earthquake, but the goal is to get everybody out alive,” explained Dwayne Harkness, project manager for the state Department of General Administration.

It has been 10 years since the Nisqually earthquake rattled office buildings and homes, destroyed an Olympia road and bridge, and reminded Olympia area residents that they live in a community especially prone to earthquake damage.

Since the 2001 earthquake, which was eerily similar to deep earthquakes that struck South Sound in 1949 and 1965, the state has spent more than $40 million on earthquake repairs on the Capitol Campus and on parks and roads around state-managed Capitol Lake.

The cost of repairs and seismic upgrades include $21 million to repair the Legislative Building – it was closed for two years to complete the work – and $8 million to rebuild Deschutes Parkway along Capitol Lake, the most earthquake-damaged road in the state.

Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Thurston County, recalled how frightening it was inside the Legislative Building in the Senate Caucus Room as the Nisqually earthquake shook the iconic building. She said it was a noisy, bumpy ride.

“It sounded like large boulders were grinding noisily on each other,” she recalled.

The grinding sound turned out to be the movement of the spectacular dome that caps the Legislative Building.

“Had the earthquake continued maybe 10 seconds more at its full intensity, the Legislative Building might have been destroyed, with major loss of life, and the state might have faced a major challenge of government succession due to loss of life of so many elected officials,” Fraser said.

It’s no coincidence that the Capitol Campus and lake environs suffered so much damage: The Capitol Campus is built on soft soils prone to shaking in a violent earthquake, and the road is built on fill material that can turn to mush in a forceful quake – a process called liquefaction – state Department of Natural Resources chief hazards geologist Tim Walsh said.

In fact, much of downtown Olympia – more than 400 acres – is built on dredge spoils from Budd Inlet, wood debris, sawdust and other unstable materials that fare poorly in earthquakes.

“It’s just plain really, really bad stuff,” Walsh said last year when asked to describe soil conditions in downtown Olympia.

In Olympia, 27 buildings were closed immediately after the earthquake, and several required major repairs. The Fourth Avenue Bridge was knocked out of commission and cost $39 million to replace, more than the cost of Olympia’s new City Hall.

The deep, soft soils that amplify energy from an earthquake are also present in the South Capitol neighborhood, where dozens of homes suffered chimney damage 10 years ago.

The neighborhood is also home to the State Capital Museum, the former Lord Mansion built in 1923. It is undergoing a major seismic upgrade to better connect the walls and floors, said Bill Jones, project foreman for Christensen Inc. of Tumwater.

But much work remains to make the community a seismically safer place.

City building official Tom Hill estimates that as much as 30 percent of downtown buildings remain vulnerable to a major earthquake because they are mostly unreinforced brick buildings that have no seismic upgrades in place.

The city requires a building owner to do a structural inspection when the building’s use changes. The inspection often leads to work to make the building more earthquake-safe, Hill said.

And much of the new construction in the capital city takes place in the most seismically vulnerable areas of the city, including the port peninsula, which is fill material.

Buildings can be engineered to survive in the liquefaction zone with a lot of pilings, shear walls, bolts, rods and braces to connect all the building parts.

“But if all the soils collapse around the building, you may need a stepladder to get in the front door,” said Mike Szramek, a structural engineer with MC Squared Inc. of Olympia.

The type of earthquake to strike South Sound next will go a long way in determining how the built environment and the people in it fare. Damage, deaths and injuries from previous deep earthquakes in 1949, 1965 and 2001 would pale in comparison to that caused by a nearby shallow earthquake – think Christchurch, New Zealand – or a mega-thrust earthquake where the oceanic and North American continental plates collide and rupture.

Once the O’Brien Building upgrade is finished in December, there are few, if any, state funds left to upgrade giant state office buildings in advance of the next damaging earthquake.

That’s despite the fact that three studies in the past 10 years have shown that the Natural Resources Building, Office Building 2 and state Department of Transportation headquarters on the Capitol Campus could use millions of dollars in seismic upgrades.

“We’ve identified the projects, but there isn’t any money,” said GA spokesman Steve Valandra.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com