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'Invisible' disaster impacts 30,000

BY SUSAN KIM | Olympia, WA | June 7, 2001

"FEMA is still getting 200 to 300 damage calls per day."

—Rob Harper

More than 200 people

daily are still discovering hidden damage from an earthquake that jolted

the Pacific northwest more than three months ago, reported the Federal

Emergency Management Agency.

When the 6.8-magnitude quake -- the area's most powerful in more than half a century -- struck, it was so strong it cracked the thick Capitol dome near Olympia, WA. The entire city of Seattle slid about 5 millimeters northeast. And Olympia dropped a quarter of an inch.

But when only one quake-related injury -- a heart attack -- was reported, and residents took a look at their still-standing homes, there was a collective sigh of relief.

Now that relief has turned to concern as thousands of people discover they have quake damage after all. Their foundations are cracking, chimneys crumbling, and walls buckling. Already some 30,000 have reported damage to their homes.

And it just keeps coming, said Rob Harper, senior public information officer for Washington emergency management. "FEMA is still getting 200 to 300 damage calls per day. The magnitude of this keeps going."

The breadth of the damage has extended into up to 200 miles from the ocean into eastern Washington, where there was originally no expectation of damage at all.

"Initially people had no problem but now they're finding more and more damage," said Harper, adding that FEMA isn't finding a great deal of exaggeration, fraud, or bogus claims among the hundreds that keep piling in.

One of Harper's own coworkers had drywall damage in the $10,000 range. Another of his acquaintances had a cracked foundation that will take $50,000 to repair because the entire front end of the home had to be shored up - and the family had to move out.

The sheer number of impacted people, the distance they span, and the hidden nature of the damage add up to make this disaster "a rare one," said Neil Molenaar, a Church World Service disaster response facilitator who is helping to coordinate a long-term interfaith response. Molenaar joined with local church leaders to create the Washington Faith-Based Earthquake Recovery Network.

Molenaar and others from the faith-based organization have seen cracked ceilings, holes in walls, floors that are no longer level, dips in kitchens. "One elderly lady told us her house feels like a rocking chair when the train goes by."

Despite the well documented and burgeoning accounts of damage, Molenaar said, "we're working an invisible disaster" because people can't drive down the street and readily see which homes have been affected.

"There has been no media coverage except for a few damaged homes initially. Then within a week after the earthquake most of the inconvenience was gone for a lot of people. So it has been really difficult to generate any kind of local commitment and enthusiasm."

Volunteer teams from the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) and Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) have been working recently in the area to help assess and repair damages. The American Baptist Churches USA and United Methodist Committee on Relief helped relocate people who could not safely return to their homes.

The Washington Faith-Based Earthquake Recovery Network reported that many people it is assisting are elderly, disabled, or non-English speaking.

For the volunteers conducting damage assessments, it has been a seemingly never-ending process. Marcy DeVries, who has been volunteering with CRWRC for 12 years, said this disaster is different than any she's seen.

"The biggest difference is that, ordinarily, a disaster is in one place, or at least a somewhat defined area, like a certain stretch of blocks or along a riverbank. But this is all over. That makes assessing damages very difficult. Usually we can go from house to house but in this case it's many miles."

Barb Adams, area coordinator for MDS, said her teams just try to take the repair list house by house. "We are trying little by little to get out to widespread areas and fix a home at a time."

FEMA's Harper said that inadequate foundations and deteriorating mortar on homes were among conditions that contributed to worse damage. "People should brace their chimney into place if it's vulnerable," he said, adding that another quake is always a possibility.

In fact, some geological scientists believe an earthquake of unknown magnitude could occur at any moment because the Puget Sound area in Washington sits atop many faults.

"Protecting yourself and your property against the threat of another earthquake is not something you want to procrastinate about," said Bill Lokey, a FEMA coordinating officer. "The Puget Sound area is associated with an earthquake hazard similar to that of Chile, Alaska, or Japan, where the world's largest earthquakes occur. This hazard potential is justification for anchoring your home and for taking other careful steps to reduce your risk."

Harper added, "I think this earthquake created more awareness of all the unstable earth we live on."

Meanwhile damage tallies grow daily from the February quake. Federal and state agencies have approved $92.9 million in aid to help Washington residents and businesses.

"We have a long course ahead of us here," said Harper.

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