Seattle quake doesn’t rattle high tech firms

The Pacific Northwest weathered its worst earthquake in 52 years on Ash Wednesday, but despite the quake’s strength, high-tech companies sustained little if any damage.

The quake, which measured 6.8 on the Richter scale, was the largest since the region’s 7.4 shaker in 1949, and lasted nearly a minute, according to monitors. It hit at 10:55 a.m. local time Wednesday. The University of Washington’s Seismology Lab reports that the quake was so abrupt and strong that it tore the pens off the lab’s seismograph.

South of Seattle, workers at Boeing facilities were evacuated and sent home. Workers in that area, closer to the quake’s epicenter than downtown Seattle or Bellevue/Redmond, reported bookcases crashing to the floor and large computer monitors tossed off desks. As workers emptied one five-story Boeing facility, they reported the building shows cracks in walls and stairwells.

Even though as many as 200,000 people in the region were still without power at 4 p.m., the quake had little impact on the area’s high-tech companies. Employees at Microsoft Corp. reported that, despite the severe shaking, the company did not close down and its internal network didn’t even flicker.

Microsoft Rolls Along

“Everything was shaking off of the shelves [in my office] and everyone marched out of the building,” says one Microsoft employee. “But the company didn’t close. We don’t have a lot of tall buildings.”

Indeed, none of the buildings on Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, east of Bellevue, is older than the mid-1980s, and all follow the Northwest’s earthquake codes. The campus mostly comprises low-rise structures.

Microsoft remains open, though one building in its remote campus in Issaquah, east of Seattle, is closed pending inspections, according to a Microsoft spokesperson. Also, a gas leak was reported in one newer building on the company’s main campus. Overall, the company had some glass damage and some fallen ceiling tiles but no major damage.

Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect of Microsoft, cut short his speech to an educational conference in downtown Seattle when the quake hit. He was rushed from the building and the audience evacuated as soon as chandeliers in the hotel’s ballroom began to sway.

Handling High-Rise Vibrations

An employee of Nortel Networks Corp. said she had a shaky ride on the eleventh floor of a 22-story high-rise office building in downtown Bellevue when the quake hit. However, when the rolling stopped, the employees went back to work.

A high-tech venture capitalist and resident of one of Bellevue’s quake-prepared skyscrapers described the traumatic 60 seconds of motion.

“We moved what seemed to be about ten feet one way, then ten feet the other, really swaying,” says Ken Levy, technology director for XMLFund in Bellevue. “The Eastside (of Lake Washington, east of Seattle) wasn’t hit nearly as bad, plus buildings are not as old and not many are built of brick, which is the worse in an earthquake.”

A spokesperson for Internet hosting service Exodus Communications Inc., which has major hosting sites in the south end of the Seattle metro area, says the quake did not interrupt services or cause data loss–including the services Exodus provides for Microsoft.

Business as Usual

In downtown Seattle, Internet firms continued to operate.

“We have electricity and telephones and e-mail, so what else do we need, right?” says Catherine Pelzel, office manager of Seattle startup, which conducted business as usual after the quake. Its neighborhood merely got quieter as some businesses closed early, and the nearby elevated highway was closed for inspection.

No major aftershocks are expected because of the particular type of earthquake common to the region. California experiences earthquakes caused by the continental plate sliding against the Pacific plate on a north-south access. But the Pacific Northwest is subject to what are called “subduction zone” quakes in which the Pacific plates slip under the continental plate. Quakes created by the movement of one plate pushing underneath another typically create much more severe, very deep quakes that are highly destructive, so experts generally agree that residents of the Seattle area are extremely lucky.

By 4:30 p.m., Seattle-Tacoma International Airport had partially reopened, particularly to accept foreign flights that were running short on fuel. However, the airport’s air traffic control tower sustained serious damage to both the major supports for the building as well as the tower’s main windows. A new tower, under construction, is not due to be finished until 2004.