ON THE SURFACE, there’s not much to distinguish Tumwater Middle School from any other modern campus. The two-story building is boxy, with a faux-brick facade in shades of ocher and tan. Blond wood brightens the corridors, and concrete floors are polished to a shine.

The only hint there’s something unique about this structure in the Portland suburb of Beaverton is the steel cross-bracing left exposed along one hallway. The beams, painted blue and filled with concrete, are part of what made Tumwater the most seismically resilient school in the Pacific Northwest when it opened five years ago — outshining even the newest schools in Washington.

Since then, Beaverton has built an additional six schools that are equally robust, all designed to not only ride out a Cascadia megaquake, but also to remain usable after the shaking stops.

If our schools are vulnerable in earthquakes, so are our kids — and our hearts

That might not sound extraordinary, but it’s more than state and federal building codes require. To meet current standards, new structures need only be designed for what’s called life-safety. That means they won’t collapse and kill people — or, as California earthquake expert Lucy Jones puts it, occupants will be able to “crawl out alive.” What happens next is not the code’s concern. Many of the schools, office towers and apartments that keep communities humming are likely to be damaged beyond repair, with devastating economic and social consequences.

Beaverton was the first school district in Oregon to decide that wasn’t good enough for its students and neighborhoods.

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“The odds of the next big earthquake happening during the lifetime of these new buildings seemed scary-high,” recalls Richard Steinbrugge, the former Beaverton facilities administrator who convinced the district it made sense to spend more for sturdier schools. “This is just a smart insurance policy — a one-time premium that basically provides insurance for 80 to 100 years.”

The premium turned out to be surprisingly small, though Steinbrugge didn’t know that back in 2014, when he sat stunned in an Oregon engineering association meeting listening to a presentation about the region’s worst seismic nightmare: a major rupture on the offshore Cascadia Subduction Zone.

The speaker was structural engineer Kent Yu, co-author of an ambitious, 50-year resilience plan developed by Oregon’s seismic safety commission to help the state prepare. Without improvements to its rickety utilities, Portland and other cities could be without water or sewer service for months, he warned. It could take 18 months for schools to reopen, triggering an exodus from the state. Among the plan’s recommendations was for schools to be built or retrofitted to higher standards so damage would be minimal, and students could be back in class within a month.

At Sato Elementary School in Beaverton, Oregon, yellow bracing is one of the few visible signs that the building was designed to a higher seismic standard than the code requires. The goal is minimal damage after an earthquake, so schools can reopen quickly. (Courtesy Kara Yunck)

“That really got my attention,” Steinbrugge says. The Beaverton School District was on the verge of passing a $680 million bond — at that time the biggest in state history — for new schools and upgrades. “I felt like we had a huge opportunity. Even a responsibility.”

He and Yu started talking about what it would take to build stronger schools that could also be used as emergency shelters.

“I told him: ‘This has probably never been done before, but maybe we can do it together,’ ” Yu says.

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IT’S NOT HARD to design structures to survive earthquakes relatively unscathed. Critical facilities such as hospitals and fire stations are required to be built for “immediate occupancy,” the higher standard that Beaverton wanted to apply to its new schools. All it takes are bigger footings, more robust shear walls, stronger connections and more steel bracing, Yu explains.

The trickier problem was figuring out how to keep utilities intact so gyms and cafeterias could be transformed into shelters where hundreds of people could take refuge.

At each of its new schools, Beaverton added oversized emergency generators and tanks that hold enough fuel to keep the power on for four days or more. They braced and strengthened HVAC systems and ducts, along with water, sewer and electrical lines in kitchens, bathrooms and large common areas. Plans for underground water tanks were scrapped due to cost, but exterior connectors allow emergency trucks to pump water into the buildings.

The price tag for all the seismic upgrades? One to two percent of total construction costs.

“Everyone was surprised it was so small,” Yu says. “This really is a no-brainer.”

Still, only a handful of other school districts in Oregon have embraced a similar approach.

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In the coastal community of Seaside, it took nearly a decade to gain community support for a new middle and high school campus built to the immediate-occupancy standard and situated on high ground safe from tsunamis. The complex, which includes a 2-million-gallon water tank, opened this fall.   

After residents approved a bond measure in 2016, Seaside, Oregon, built a middle and high school complex on high ground safe from tsunamis. The buildings were designed to a higher seismic standard so they will be strong enough to survive a major earthquake and then be usable as a community shelter. (Courtesy Seth Morrisey)

“It’s given us peace of mind, not only for our kids and schools, but for our community,” says district superintendent Susan Penrod.

The Portland School District requires major seismic retrofits to meet the higher standards in parts of a building that could be used as shelters. New schools constructed under a $1.2 billion bond approved in 2020 will be designed for immediate occupancy. Oregon also mandates immediate occupancy for common areas at schools retrofitted through its dedicated grant program.

In Washington, which long has lagged behind the rest of the West Coast in school seismic safety and earthquake preparedness, the idea of raising the construction bar for schools has yet to catch on.

“Washington has just been building schools like crazy,” but districts haven’t been willing to pay a little more for stronger structures, says Portland architect Jay Raskin, who co-authored the Oregon Resilience Plan with Yu and advised the Beaverton district. “It’s a missed opportunity.”

The waves hit the shore as Pacific Beach Elementary School students and staff walk to higher ground at the fire station during the annual earthquake and tsunami evacuation drill known as The Great ShakeOut. “You can hear the surf from the school grounds,” says principal Marlene Perez. “It’s pretty soothing, but then you think about the danger because of the subduction zone. I try not to go there.” (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

PACIFIC BEACH ELEMENTARY SCHOOL on the Washington coast sits at the opposite end of the resilience spectrum from Beaverton’s schools. Built in 1956 before seismic construction codes, the complex is a scant three blocks from the beach. You can hear the surf from the school grounds, says principal Marlene Perez.

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“It’s pretty soothing, but then you think about the danger because of the subduction zone,” she says. “I try not to go there.”

There’s high ground nearby, so the kids have a good chance of escaping a tsunami if the building doesn’t crumble around them. But a new report to the state legislature that evaluated the seismic soundness of 561 school buildings ranks Pacific Beach as one of the worst. All three wings on the small campus pose a “very high” risk to life and safety in a big earthquake. The two-story masonry gym is especially vulnerable.

Fifth-graders eat their lunch in the gym and cafeteria after finishing the annual earthquake and tsunami evacuation drill, The Great ShakeOut, at Pacific Beach Elementary School. The school is one of the state’s most seismically vulnerable, with the two-story masonry gym especially vulnerable. The school district is getting money from a new state fund to upgrade the building.  (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

Pacific Beach isn’t alone. Based on structural integrity and soil type, the report gave one star out of five — the lowest possible rating — to 93% of schools surveyed. That means there’s a high chance the buildings will collapse in multiple spots and kill or injure occupants, says Corina Allen, leader of the School Seismic Safety Project at the Washington Department of Natural Resources, which oversaw the report. Thirty-six of the school buildings also are in tsunami zones.

“Several districts declined to participate because they didn’t want a record of their school having seismic deficiencies, and then they would have to do something about it,” Allen says.

IT’S LARGELY UP TO districts to pay for retrofits and new construction through bond elections — which require a 60% supermajority to pass. Many of the one-star schools are in rural areas with low incomes and property values. In Seattle, nearly all older schools have been retrofitted thanks to generous voters and the state’s biggest property tax base.

“It should not be the case that some kids are in schools that are really, really unsafe, and only wealthy communities get safe schools,” says Andrew Kelly, superintendent of the North Beach School District, which includes Pacific Beach Elementary.

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The Hoquiam School District has only five schools, but a dozen of its buildings are on DNR’s “very high” or “high” priority lists for seismic upgrades. The city’s high school is more than 50 years old and sits on unstable soil at the edge of Grays Harbor.

Residents of the former timber industry hub consistently support modest levies and bonds, says superintendent Mike Villarreal. One elementary school is currently getting upgrades thanks to a $6.8 million bond passed in 2018. But the estimated cost to retrofit or replace the high school ranges from $50 million to $120 million. 

“Our community can’t handle that,” Villarreal says. “That’s way too much.”

With more than 10,000 students, Marysville might seem better situated in the economically robust Puget Sound area. But it also has a tough time getting big construction bonds passed, says facilities manager Gregg Kuehn.

The state report gives single-star ratings to 21 of the district’s school buildings, and singles out four as “highest priority.”

Even the Renton School District, which has a long history of voter-approved construction bonds, has four buildings on the “highest priority” list. A major difference between the Seattle suburb and poorer parts of the state is that Renton was able to hire engineers to do detailed analyses of the risky buildings and map out a plan for the fixes with a reasonable expectation the money will come.

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WITHOUT STATE SUPPORT for less-affluent districts, Washington’s school seismic safety gap will only widen. That’s a problem the rest of the West Coast began tackling years ago. California mandated strict seismic standards for schools beginning in 1933 and invested heavily in retrofitting or replacing unsound buildings.

British Columbia has spent billions for retrofits, including more than $800 million in the past five years. Oregon’s Seismic Rehabilitation Grant Program, funded through state bond sales, was approved by voters in 2005. The program has awarded nearly $460 million — with an additional $160 million in the pipeline — for hundreds of projects.

Washington’s grant program has completed retrofits at a single school: Edison Elementary in Centralia.

The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction launched the effort in 2020 and asked the legislature for $75 million through the end of the current budget cycle. They got $53 million.

Among more than a dozen schools prioritized for funding is Pacific Beach Elementary, where the gym will be strengthened. But the cost of the retrofit has tripled because engineers discovered the soil is likely to liquefy during an earthquake. So OSPI will be going back to the legislature early next year, seeking $8.6 million in supplemental funding.

OSPI hopes lawmakers will provide $25 million a year, says Randy Newman, director of school facilities. “This is going to be a long-term program until we reach all the schools that need it,” he says.

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With so many schools and so little money, retrofits will have to meet only a basic, life-safety standard. The new report recommends Washington consider raising construction standards for new schools, but that’s likely to be a lengthy process. In Oregon, a proposal to strengthen the building code for schools failed, though proponents plan to introduce it again.

Jones, the seismologist Californians call “the earthquake lady,” is leading a push for stronger codes for most buildings across her home state to speed recovery. “We need homes and workplaces that survive us after earthquakes,” she wrote in a recent column urging the legislature to support a pending bill.

WASHINGTON’S LACKLUSTER PERFORMANCE reflects the lack of public or political support. The last Cascadia earthquake struck in 1700, and estimates of the average recurrence range from 250 to 500 years. In the face of that uncertainly, it’s easy for politicians to gamble it won’t happen on their watch.

Alarmed by a state analysis that found many older schools in Western Washington are so seismically unsound that students are at high risk of injury or death during an earthquake, Jim and Donna Buck sent summaries of the findings to 4,000 legislators, fire chiefs, school board members and others. Here, the couple inventories an emergency-preparedness cache they helped establish for the remote community of Joyce on the Olympic Peninsula where they live. (Courtesy Bruce Leiper / Joyce Emergency Planning and Prep)

That’s infuriating to Jim Buck, a former state legislator who lives in the tiny town of Joyce on the Olympic Peninsula. “You can’t put a kid in a boat without a life jacket, or in a car without a car seat,” he says. “Why in the world would you be required by law to send them to a school that could kill them?”

Buck and his wife, Donna, might be the state’s leading citizen champions for earthquake preparedness. Recognizing they live in a place that will be isolated after a seismic disaster, the couple has been working with neighbors to plan and stockpile emergency caches of food and gear. When the schools report was quietly released in June, Buck was shocked it wasn’t getting much attention.

He waded through the report and its unwieldy appendices, some so big he couldn’t open them on his computer. Much of the language seemed geared to engineers instead of parents.  

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“I can tell you right now,” he says, “there wasn’t a single legislator who had read it or understood what it said.”

He and Donna spent five weeks distilling the results into news releases and fact sheets. They transferred reams of data into a searchable spreadsheet and wrote letters to individual principals and school boards. Then they emailed or snail-mailed the packages to more than 4,000 people across the state, from lawmakers to local fire chiefs.

The response has been mostly positive, Buck says. One person objected to the photo Buck included. It’s a graphic image of children buried in rubble in Sichuan, China, where hundreds of schools collapsed in a 2008 earthquake and killed more than 5,000 students.

Buck agrees it’s hard to look at.

“You just have tears in your eyes.”

But the report’s technical language and cost-benefit tone didn’t sit well with him. It was important, he felt, to add what seemed to be missing: a reminder of what’s at stake.