If there was a severe earthquake, students inside Marysville’s Totem Middle School’s main building could have a frightening experience.

About 70 percent of that building, which serves more than 550 students, could be damaged because it lacks features that could help it withstand shaking, according to a new Washington state analysis.

It would have “very high” risk of taking lives, according to the estimates.

It is a risk. It is a safety concern if the big one hits,” said Mike Sullivan, finance and operations director for the Marysville district. “Our school is not current on codes and isn’t seismically safe for our students and really should be retrofitted.”

Totem Middle School is far from alone.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) sent individual assessments of earthquake risk to administrators for 222 school buildings last week, containing grim reminders of our state’s earthquake risk.

The report, funded by the state Legislature, is an assessment of nearly 5% of Washington’s 4,444 permanent school buildings.

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Of the 222 school buildings assessed, most would be unsafe to occupy after a powerful quake, about a quarter would not be able to be repaired and 43% posed a “high” or “very high” risk for loss of life, according to DNR’s report.

The assessment found that older buildings and those constructed from unreinforced masonry or rigid, under-reinforced concrete were most vulnerable.

The analysis provides extensive and detailed warnings of how the buildings that often contain Washington’s children could fare in a powerful earthquake and shows how retrofits now could save money — and lives.

But despite previous warnings, action, and funding to mitigate seismic risk, have proven more elusive to state lawmakers. 

Often older buildings

In recent years, public understanding of Washington’s vulnerability to earthquakes has grown. Public schools, often older buildings and places where the law requires children’s attendance, are of particular concern.

A Seattle Times investigation in 2016 found that one in three pupils enrolled in Washington schools — about 386,000 students at the time — lived in earthquake-prone areas and attended schools built before seismic construction standards were adopted statewide in 1975.

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In 2014, the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction estimated a magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami could kill up to 7,600 students and cause $4 billion in damage and losses to schools. (The new report estimates that damage to the 222 schools studied would be about $642 million.)

California, Oregon and British Columbia have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to strengthen school buildings, but Washington does not require seismic upgrades or have dedicated state funding for retrofits.

“We’re behind, we need to do more,” said State Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Port Townsend, who chairs the House Capital Budget Committee. “You’ll see more investments by the state in this area.”

The recent DNR analysis, which cost $1.2 million, is a first step toward cataloging risk, with school buildings in 75 districts from nearly every corner of the state included.

“We did select these schools to be a representative, meaningful sample,” said Corina Forson, DNR’s chief hazard geologist. The researchers chose not to include Seattle Public Schools, which has invested tens of millions of dollars from local construction bond to fund seismic retrofits.

At each school site studied, DNR geologists used seismic sensors on playing fields to measure how soil would react to an earthquake, Forson said.

Engineers assessed each school’s construction and design, considering factors like a structure’s ability to bend before breaking.

Based on that data, engineers estimated of how much damage a school building could receive after a “design-level earthquake” — similar in magnitude to a Cascadia subduction zone earthquake, which scientists expect to occur about once every 500 years.

The analysis did not factor the potential impacts of hazards that often accompany an earthquake like tsunamis or landslides.

For 15 buildings, engineers did further analysis, comparing the estimated cost of seismic upgrades with how much it would cost to replace or repair a school building after an earthquake.

Upgrade costs ranged widely, from a low of $63,000 to a high of over $5 million. The engineers found that most would pencil out to about $1.5 million to $2.7 million per building.

The analysis did not consider “soft” costs for retrofits, like planning or construction management, said Dave Swanson, of Reid Middleton, the engineering firm that consulted on the project. Nor did it put an economic value on the loss of life should an earthquake strike.

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Still, for school buildings in areas of high seismic risk, it makes financial sense to retrofit now, the analysts found.

“Spending the money now will help save the money later, not to mention saving lives in the next big earthquake,” Forson said.

That’s a message with which school administrators and legislators are grappling.

“The study indicates we have a lot of work ahead of us to try to get these schools into an upgraded condition. I don’t think we should panic. I think we need to take it very seriously,” said state Sen. David Frockt, a Seattle Democrat and leader on capital budget issues.

Frockt said the issue is so massive, but lacking in immediacy, that it can end up losing priority as lawmakers triage funding concerns.

“It gets put on the back burner. We need to figure out how to prioritize that. Maybe this report will wake us up a bit,” he said.

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Frockt said lawmakers included record spending in recent capital budgets for school construction. He hopes lawmakers could apportion some of the construction funding for seismic upgrades for at-risk school districts in their next capital budget.

Helping prioritize

In Marysville, the study could help school leaders prioritize. Totem Middle School, which is more than a half-century old, was one of the 15 buildings that engineers performed a cost analysis, estimating seismic upgrades at about $1.8 million.

“I think this information will change our course of direction a little bit,” said Sullivan. “It will delay some other projects, but we’ll probably prioritize this one.” 

Sullivan said he hopes the Legislature funds retrofits; if not, he has about $3 million set aside each year for major school repairs across Marysville’s 20 schools.

“We really desperately want to fix up our schools. Some need to be torn down and replaced, others need retrofit,” he said. “What we’re doing right now is prioritizing things and dealing with them one at a time.”

The state Legislature has already committed another $2.2 million dollars to continue surveying schools through 2021. Forson said DNR plans to survey another 350 schools, focusing in part on schools that could be hit by a tsunami triggered by a massive quake.