Half of state’s schools -- and their students -- at risk in an earthquake, study says

What to do when an earthquake hits

FEMA explains what you should do before an earthquake happens and when it occurs in an animated video called "When The Earth Shakes."
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FEMA explains what you should do before an earthquake happens and when it occurs in an animated video called "When The Earth Shakes."

The first statewide study of how Washington schools will fare in an earthquake found nearly half pose a high or very high risk for loss of life.

The study, released Tuesday from the state’s Department of Natural Resources, assessed the seismic safety of 222 public school buildings out 4,444 in the state based on local geology and construction type. It found the majority would be unsafe to occupy after something like a Cascadia subduction zone earthquake, and nearly a quarter would likely not be repairable and would need to be demolished.

“Our children need and deserve safe schools,” Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said in a news release. “It’s a question of when, not if, the next earthquake will hit. We need to be vigilant and take steps now to help keep our kids safe.”

The 222 buildings studied were a sampling selected based on their location, size, construction type and age. Area schools included in the study were Black Lake Elementary School in the Tumwater School District, built in 1982-84, and Edison Elementary School in the Centralia School District, built in 1918.

Black Lake was rated low to moderate risk, while Edison was rated very high risk.

The average date of construction for the buildings in the study is 1963, well before earthquake-resistant building codes. More than 4,000 portable facilities that also are vulnerable were not studied.

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The study took a closer look at 15 of the buildings to determine what it would take to reduce the risk of casualties or damage so that the building could be occupied immediately after an earthquake. Cost estimates ranged from $63,000 to more than $5 million per building.

The study noted the cost to upgrade a vulnerable building is “less or much less” than the costs to repair damage from an earthquake.

School districts are not required to make upgrades, and the report notes they would need financial support to do so. It recommends upgrading vulnerable buildings and those in high risk areas with funding from the state.

“The overall cost to seismically upgrade the state’s most vulnerable buildings is no doubt staggering,” the report says. “However, the cost and time to rebuild a multitude of school buildings at the same time, following a Cascadia-type earthquake event, affecting nearly 750,000 public-school students, could be an overwhelming obstacle in Washington state’s post-disaster recovery.”

Lawmakers included $2.2 million in the 2019–21 capital budget to continue studying the issue.

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Abby Spegman joined The Olympian in 2017. She covers the city of Olympia and a little bit of everything else. She previously worked at newspapers in Oregon, New Hampshire and Hawaii.