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6 counties in Washington are declared a disaster area

Damage estimates from 6.8 quake pass $2 billion

SEATTLE — The scene left little doubt western Washington would secure an emergency disaster declaration: Cracked buildings, crushed cars and crumbled roads dominate the landscape rocked by an earthquake.

Within hours of Gov. Gary Locke's request for federal aid, President Bush declared the region a federal disaster, clearing the way for low-interest loans, grants and other assistance needed to help rebuild. The declaration came Thursday as damage estimates from the 6.8-magnitude quake climbed above $2 billion.

"It's not necessarily 100 percent relief," Locke said, adding that it should provide substantial help to homeowners, businesses and state and local governments. "It's important that we get back to normal, that we clean up and that we learn lessons from this particular earthquake."

Most people have returned to life as usual, swapping stories about close calls Wednesday during the region's strongest shaking in nearly 52 years. Few noticed two aftershocks Thursday, and no additional damage was reported.

The Northwest quake caused about 320 injures, none critical. Municipal leaders said the millions of dollars spent stabilizing highways and buildings against earthquakes over the past decade paid off. Scientists said the quake's depth — 33 miles underground — also eased the impact.

"The biggest news is there is no news," Seattle Mayor Paul Schell said. "There aren't any fatalities. The damage, while serious, is not anything like what people would have expected."

Joe Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, toured the region with members of the state's congressional delegation. He said he saw significant structural damage and was particularly worried about rural bridges he had not yet seen, but he praised the state for its extensive earthquake preparation.

The disaster declaration covers King, Kitsap, Lewis, Mason, Pierce and Thurston counties, which include Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia and dozens of surrounding cities.

Most of the region's buildings constructed since the mid-1970s comply with codes designed to let them withstand strong earthquakes, and one program has spent $65 million to strengthen more than 300 bridges since 1990.

"Obviously, you take this business very seriously," Allbaugh said, addressing Washington residents during a news conference. "As a result of that preparation, injuries were held to a minimum."

While pleased with how the state held up, officials urged residents not to become complacent and said further earthquake preparation is needed.

Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., said he spent part of last week touring parts of India devastated by a 7.7-magnitude quake that killed more than 19,000 in January.

"The tale of two earthquakes is pretty amazing," he said. "If you look at the enforcement of building codes with this city, compared to what has gone on in India, you realize what this is all about."

In Olympia, the state capital south of Seattle, several streets were blocked off Thursday as crews began removing rubble. The Capitol complex remained closed, idling 10,000 workers, most of them until Monday when buildings were to be inspected and cleaned.

Legislative leaders weren't sure whether the Capitol itself, with a crack behind pillars supporting its dome, can be used. Inspectors estimated the dome shifted three-quarters of an inch, Locke said.

Officials were scouting other sites in case the Legislature has to relocate for the rest of the session.