“Oh wow! We got some money”: New funding tackles long-neglected earthquake concerns, such as school safety and old brick buildings.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee likes to joke that a major earthquake isn’t allowed to strike during his time in office.
But Inslee acknowledged Wednesday that seismic upheaval is inevitable in Washington, as he and members of his administration outlined preliminary steps to help reduce the death and devastation when that day comes.
The recently approved capital budget includes $1.2 million that is the first money ever specifically earmarked by the Legislature for seismic evaluations of public schools. The budget also includes $200,000 for a statewide survey of old brick buildings — called unreinforced masonry — that are prone to topple in earthquakes.
“This is a long way from fixing the problem,” Inslee told a group gathered at the state Capitol to discuss disaster resilience. “But at least it will allow us to wrap our arms around the challenges we have in our school buildings and our unreinforced masonry buildings.”
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More than 70 percent of Washington’s public schools are located in areas of high or very high seismic risk, said Corina Forson, chief hazard geologist at the Washington Department of Natural Resources. And 88 percent of schools across the state were constructed before 2005, when building codes were strengthened to fully incorporate all types of earthquakes expected to rock the region in the future.
Perhaps the most precariously situated schools are the 37 built in low-lying coastal areas, where towering tsunamis could barrel ashore less than 30 minutes after a quake on the submarine fault called the Cascadia Subduction Zone.
That includes all but one campus in the Aberdeen School District.
“We are at risk of major damage and loss of life,” Superintendent Alicia Henderson told the governor.
The $1.2 million will cover preliminary seismic assessments for 220 school buildings, along with more comprehensive analyses and retrofit plans for 20 of those buildings, Forson said.
But it will take another $10 million to $15 million for preliminary evaluations of all the state’s at-risk school buildings, she added.
State Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, championed the school-seismic funding, partly because she remains haunted by a visit several years ago to a town in China where a local school was destroyed by an earthquake and landslide.
“Schools are where our children are, and that needs to be of paramount responsibility, from my perspective,” Smith said. “I think we can approach this in a rational way that puts life and safety first.”
Washington lags other West Coast states in taking action to reduce earthquake damage and shorten recovery time, so even a modest amount of funding is a promising sign, said one member of the state’s Seismic Safety Committee.
“At our latest committee meeting, there were audible gasps: ‘Oh, wow! This really happened. We got some money,’ ” said Scott Miles, a disaster risk-reduction expert at the University of Washington, who was not part of Wednesday’s discussion.
But real progress will come only if the state continues investing in upgrades to buildings and infrastructure, Miles added. “This isn’t a lot of money, but it’s good in the sense that it’s a symbolic victory and it must have raised the awareness of some politicians.”
One long-standing issue is the threat posed by old brick buildings, infamous for collapsing during earthquakes and showering bricks on passers-by. California began requiring retrofits 30 years ago. No city in Washington has yet followed suit, although Seattle has been trying for decades without success.
A recent inventory counted more than 1,100 unreinforced masonry buildings across the state’s largest city. Statewide, there may be more than 185,000, John Schelling, of the Commerce Department, told the governor.
The agency is hiring a contractor to conduct the statewide survey, which will be completed by the end of the year.
Wednesday’s meeting was convened by Results Washington, a data-driven initiative created by Inslee to track progress on several major goals, like reducing traffic deaths and teen pregnancy and protecting the environment.
Adding measures of disaster resilience to that list — like the number of schools or brick buildings retrofitted, for example — could help drive progress, said Inger Brinck, the program’s director.
“We see a need to elevate this issue,” she said.
Inslee created a subcabinet group in 2016 to identify ways to boost the state’s quake preparedness and mitigate damage. He pledged to follow up on a 2017 report from the group that called for creation of a legislative task force and a central office to push for disaster resilience.