Gettin' the Bricks and Mortar in Order

In this moment, natural disasters figure largely in our conscious and unconscious minds. We are overwhelmed by images of tsunami inundations, calving glaciers, hurricane flooding, and earthquake rubble. The footage of wildfires rolling across dry western landscapes and neighborhoods is imprinted upon us through the cycling reels of media. This drama of disaster and its human, political, and financial toll continuously unfolds — and the prediction of still greater events (e.g., the big quake, the global perils of climate change) intensifies a growing disquiet.

In the U.S., there is a regional and seasonal allocation of disasters by type. In our mental maps, we equate fall hurricanes with the gulf states, with Georgia and the Carolinas; spring flooding goes to coastal and river states; forest fires occupy huge swaths of the west from mid-summer to mid-fall. But even as these regional and temporal boundaries seem, in recent years, to have extended and blurred, for earthquakes, there is much less a sense of spatial precision or a season of likelihood. They are always looming, but their timing and location is inscrutably geologic. In the Pacific Northwest, we contend with wildfires and flooding, but it is the full margin rupture of the Cascadian subduction zone - the really big earth quake — that haunts our unconscious like a sleeping giant.

Getting organized to deal with the potential threats of disasters is problematic. Our vague and growing worry over what may come, when it may come, and what form it may take can inspire a certain paralysis. And, until they actually happen, natural disasters are easy to ignore politically. Ask any Emergency Manager about their daily struggle to keep their program figured into political agendas and funding pyramids, especially during even a brief period of calm between “events.” Idling, ignoring and finger-crossing is one coping mechanism. A better, if more challenging, one is to undertake some proactive assessment work to see what may be at stake, and then to plan and act accordingly.

We have been very pleased to be part of such an effort led by the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation in collaboration with the Washington Department of Commerce. At the close of the 2017-2018 legislative session, these agencies were charged by the Washington State Legislature with developing a first-ever inventory of unreinforced masonry buildings across the State. The Gartrell Group was selected to complete this effort, working on a team with expert consultants from Architectural Resources Group and Degenkold Engineers.

Our work on this project involved integrating building records from numerous sources; designing and populating a database focused on the building data; and then exposing the packaged information through an interactive mapping tool designed to let non-technical staff review, evaluate, and maintain the inventory going forward.

In collecting and assimilating data, we collaborated with a number of public entities around the State including tax assessors, county and municipal emergency managers, university staff and representatives of Main Street Communities. We also gathered and field-verified data from a pilot survey focused on a downtown area in the City of Port Townsend. The database and mapping system completed in this first phase of work is now deployed in a cloud-based server environment which we maintain for the Washington agencies and their stakeholders.

People working in the geospatial realm have perhaps a slightly more elevated sense of the value of creating and exposing cross-jurisdictional data sets such as this particular Inventory of unreinforced masonry buildings. GIS is, by nature, an integrative practice - and our daily work has taught us that for many phenomena, jurisdictional boundaries are irrelevant even though they dictate the way we are organized and how we pay our taxes. In order to effectively plan for and be able to help respond to events like natural disasters, people must be able to work across boundaries, supported by data sets, visualization, and resource requisition capabilities that do not abruptly end at a city or county line. New data sets that support this kind of cross jurisdictional capability are greatly valued in our field.

The legislative mandate behind this project doesn’t indicate precisely how this data will be taken up and used. With this phase of work complete, though, Washington has new data input to support better quantitative assessment of risks, exposure levels, and potential human and financial impacts stemming from different events and scenarios. We are interested to see how this new information resource may affect thinking, policy development, and proactive efforts related to building resources that hark back to very different moments in the architectural, social, and economic history of the Pacific Northwest.