Hundreds of schools in Washington have a failing grade for earthquake safety


Tens of thousands of Washington state school students resumed classes this month in school buildings deemed at risk of collapse in a severe earthquake.

A new report to the state legislature prepared by state geologists and a structural engineering firm gave the lowest possible seismic safety rating to over 90% of school buildings assessed in a statewide selective survey.

Structural engineers hired by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources have visually inspected 561 school buildings over the past four years, assessed the underlying geology, and reviewed architectural drawings when available. The report they prepared gave each school a rating ranging from one star for the lowest end to five stars for the safest schools.

In total, 93% of the school buildings assessed obtained a structural safety rating of one star; 4% obtained two stars; and only 3% were rated three stars or better.

“The one-star buildings mean that there is a risk of collapse in several places or on a large scale in this school building,” said Corina Allen, chief risk geologist at the state’s Department of Natural Resources and chief. of School seismic safety project.

Allen said the high percentage of old and deficient buildings was “not too surprising” given how the schools for the study were selected.

“We were deliberately looking for high-risk school buildings and schools located in areas of high seismic risk and areas of tsunami flooding,” Allen said in an interview. “Newer schools are expected to perform much, much better during a major earthquake.”

Of the more than 4,000 K-12 school buildings in use in Washington, the project prioritized scrutinizing those built before 1975, when the building code was tightened. According to the report’s authors, schools in the state’s largest district, Seattle, and nearby Bellevue were not reviewed because they have already seismically modernized many of their schools.

“We have a significant problem with safe schools in this state and the legislature must address it,” responded Jim Buck, an emergency preparedness volunteer who lives west of Port Angeles and previously represented the Olympic Peninsula to the State House of Representatives.

“It’s not something they can send to a school district and say, ‘Well, that’s your problem. Go impose a tax. “It’s too big,” Buck said.

Buck and his wife are so concerned that the risk of an earthquake in schools is being overlooked by the drafters of the state budget, they have taken it upon themselves to write a plain English summary of the latest report and have added a call to action. This week, they sent this package by email or postal mail to more than 4,000 school administrators, school board members, fire chiefs, county commissioners, PTA members and others across the state to coincide with the start of the school year.

Buck noted that Washington lags far behind Oregon, California and British Columbia in seismic renovations to public school buildings. Over the past four years, the government of British Columbia approved more than $ 1.2 billion (US $ 953 million) for seismic upgrades or replacements at 58 schools across the province, so that more than 31,400 students can be better protected at school during a earthquake.

Over a decade ago, Oregon lawmakers created a seismic modernization grant program for vulnerable public schools, hospitals, and fire and police stations. It is financed by the sale of government bonds. Since last year, the program had gradually allocated more than $ 456 million in aid since the launch of the first grant in 2009.

Geologist Allen praised policymakers in her Washington state for stepping up support for upgrading seismic safety in schools in the wake of what are now two studies showing a drastic risk of earthquakes in schools. school buildings. Washington DNR previously published a risk analysis in 2019 based on a first round of structural surveys in schools.

“I think these studies made a difference,” Allen said. “There is a long way to go. We have a lot of catching up to do in order to seismically modernize all the schools that need it.”

The Washington legislature included $ 40 million in the state’s current two-year construction budget for a dedicated seismic school renovation grant program administered by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Education. This represents an increase from the $ 13 million allocated in the previous 2019-21 budget cycle.

Former lawmaker Buck called these spending figures “budget dust” in relation to the amount of need and the overall state budget. Buck was particularly furious that the legislature budgeted more money to renovate the capital campus where lawmakers work in Olympia – $ 100 million over the next two years – than for seismic improvements to buildings where children go to. school.

The latest report from the School Seismic Safety Project describes three sources of earthquake risk in the Pacific Northwest. The best known is the fault zone off the coast of Cascadia, the source of catastrophic magnitude 8 to 9 mega-earthquakes commonly referred to as “the big one” that occur approximately every 300 to 600 years.

The Northwest is also experiencing earthquakes up to magnitude 7 from shallow crustal faults that affect smaller geographic areas on both sides of the Cascades. The most common strong earthquakes in the region are slightly deeper earthquakes that originate in the slab covering the subduction zone. The Nisqually 6.8 magnitude earthquake in 2001 is a good example. This summer’s school seismic safety report to the legislature estimated that there is about an 85% chance of another deep slab earthquake in Washington state in the next 50 years. , based on research conducted by the US Geological Survey.

[Copyright 2021 Northwest News Network]

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