Seismic Neglect: Tens of thousands of Washington students attend schools in tsunami and earthquake zones. But the state, ignoring the advice of safety experts, doesn’t require seismic evaluations or upgrades.
Part of a continuing series about Washington state’s lack of preparation for a major earthquake
LONG BEACH, PACIFIC COUNTY — All that separates Long Beach Elementary from the Pacific Ocean is a half-mile expanse of flat, sandy ground dotted with restaurants, hotels and shops catering to tourists. When the next Cascadia megaquake strikes, the 250 students at the school will face a choice Washington officials would rather not think about.
They can try to outrun the inevitable tsunami and reach high ground two miles away. Or they can hunker down in a two-story building that wasn’t designed to withstand an unstoppable wall of water. “It’s a nightmare I hope I never have to face,” said Principal Todd Carper. “Our current plan is a ‘go upstairs and hope’ situation.”
When it comes to protecting Washington schoolchildren from earthquakes and tsunamis, hope often substitutes for dollars and steel, The Seattle Times has found.
No state faces a greater threat from the offshore fault called the Cascadia Subduction Zone than Washington. But none has done less to ensure that kids in school buildings will be safe when the disaster hits.
More than 31,000 students attend schools like Long Beach that are in or near tsunami danger zones, according to a Times analysis of state data. Across Washington, roughly 386,000 pupils — one in every three enrolled — live in earthquake-prone areas and attend schools built before seismic construction standards were adopted statewide.
Yet Washington doesn’t mandate seismic evaluations or upgrades of school buildings. It doesn’t keep an inventory of unsafe schools. Even earthquake and tsunami drills, routine in many schools, are a suggestion and not a requirement under Washington law.
For decades, the state has shrugged off the recommendations of its top earthquake-safety advisers.
As a result, Washington is an outlier along the seismically active West Coast.
California, Oregon and British Columbia have all mandated seismic examinations of schools in earthquake-prone areas. Each has anted up hundreds of millions of dollars to strengthen vulnerable buildings.
In Washington, by contrast, local school districts must raise their own funds before the state kicks in any cash, creating disparities in school safety between wealthy and poor districts.
“By law, we make kids go into buildings that may not be as safe as they should be,” said Jim Mullen, Washington’s top emergency-management official from 2004 to 2013. “Safe schools are a moral and legal obligation of the state Legislature, the governor and every other public official.”
A magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami could kill up to 7,600 students and staff and cause $4 billion in damage and losses to schools, according to a 2014 study commissioned by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates almost 75 percent of coastal schools and one in five schools along the I-5 corridor could suffer extensive damage, including collapse.
More from the series:
- 'This is an urgent issue': Seattle makes little progress on buildings that can kill in earthquakes
- Overview: Washington's earthquake risks
- A quake worse than the ‘Big One’? Ruined New Zealand city shows danger in Seattle
- 4 key ways Seattle can prepare
- Quake-insurance prices soar in Washington, and companies hold all the power
- Quake insurance in Washington: What you need to know
- Washington state’s plan for megaquake ‘grossly inadequate,’ review finds
- Buildings that kill: The earthquake danger lawmakers have ignored for decades
- Is your child safe? Washington does little to protect older schools from earthquakes
- Tips for parents to find out more
- Guide to earthquake preparedness
No single entity in Washington is responsible for ensuring that schools are structurally sound. The state superintendent of schools oversees all public-education matters, but school districts own the buildings. Neither the Legislature nor the governor’s office has taken steps to make money available for seismic evaluations or retrofits.
The last legislation focusing on earthquake safety in schools was offered 25 years ago, before today’s high-school seniors — and some teachers — were born.
Reluctance to study buildings
A seismic evaluation for every school in the state would cost between $10 million and $13 million, a federally funded study found in 2011. That’s about 0.02 percent of Washington’s operating budget.
But some lawmakers have been reluctant to sanction a seismic survey of schools, fearing it would uncover deficiencies that would be costly to fix.
“Then the pressure will be there to do something,” said state Sen. Dean Takko, whose district includes Long Beach. And if legislators have evidence of structural problems and fail to act, he wondered, “Now are we liable for not doing anything?”
Takko favors such a survey, but believes it has little chance of passing.
Gov. Jay Inslee declined an interview request. In a statement, spokeswoman Tara Lee said, “Safety in our schools and communities is always a high priority” but that “more work needs to be done.” She wouldn’t elaborate.
Randy Dorn, Washington’s schools superintendent, acknowledged that seismic safety is not a high priority.
He has been consumed in recent years with trying to increase state funding for education to comply with the McCleary ruling, a state Supreme Court order. His office requested $500,000 from the Legislature in 2011 to help school districts identify their structural weaknesses, but the money was left out of the budget.
Dorn believes the state’s system for doling out school funds puts poorer districts at a disadvantage, because it’s harder for them to raise money for upgrades.
“The system is slanted and it’s an advantage to the property-rich districts,” he said. “It’s a civil-rights issue.”
Many of Washington’s older school buildings have been renovated, but state officials do not collect enough data from districts to know which ones are likely at risk.
OSPI has such data for just 17 districts — of 295 in the state — that participated in a federally funded study. The 2014 study’s preliminary results show that more than 100 buildings, 6.4 percent of those surveyed, had high seismic risk.
The peril varies considerably by district — and by wealth. In Everett, where household income is above the state median, less than 3 percent of school buildings were deemed high-risk and many have been retrofitted or replaced. The district has approved nearly $350 million in school bonds over the past decade.
In Port Angeles, which hasn’t passed a bond or capital levy since 2001, about 43 percent of school buildings were found to be high-risk, and none have been seismically retrofitted. Median household income is about 20 percent less than the statewide figure of $60,300.
“There’s an unfairness here,” said Port Angeles schools superintendent Marc Jackson. “I believe students should attend safe schools and that school safety should not be compromised by where a student lives or by their zip codes.”
“Enormous and reasonably foreseeable”
Washington schools built before 1949 were designed under the assumption that the state had little or no earthquake hazard — an assumption proved profoundly wrong on April 13 of that year. A magnitude 7.1 quake struck near Olympia, damaging 30 schools and killing two students.
The toll could have been worse had many schools not been closed for spring break.
It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that basic seismic building codes were adopted in several parts of the state. The codes weren’t implemented statewide until 1975 and have since been strengthened several times.
Mandating a study of seismic vulnerabilities in schools, and a plan to fix them, was one of the first recommendations of Washington’s Seismic Safety Council.
“The potential for injury and loss of life among students and school personnel,” the council warned the Legislature in a 1986 report, “is enormous and reasonably foreseeable.”
Beginning in the early 1980s, more than a dozen bills were proposed to improve seismic safety in schools. None passed the Legislature. The last such legislation offered was in 1991, seeking $49,000 to help schools assess seismic stability.
A legislative report noted the opposition: “The amount of money appropriated will not go very far and there will be intolerable pressure to fix both nonstructural and structural school earthquake hazards.”
The bill failed.
… If children die and you have not taken action as public policymakers, the liability is going to be ungodly.” - Oregon state Sen. Peter Courtney
By then, the full scope of the Northwest’s earthquake dangers was coming into sharper focus. Scientists had uncovered evidence that magnitude 9.0 quakes and tsunamis slammed the coast, on average, every 500 years — but sometimes only 200 years apart. The last such event was in 1700.
A coastal megaquake would be hundreds of times more powerful than any quake in recent state history, roiling the ground for five minutes or more across an area stretching from British Columbia to Northern California. Shallow faults under cities like Seattle, Tacoma and Everett can also trigger locally destructive quakes.
“We like to bury our heads in the sand about the risk of seismic events,” said Phil Talmadge, a former lawmaker and state Supreme Court justice who pushed for school earthquake-safety reforms while in the state Senate in the 1980s and 1990s.
In 2012 the seismic safety committee again called on the state to prioritize schools in its Resilient Washington State report — again, with no action.
California took a different lesson from a close call in 1933.
On a Friday evening in March, an earthquake struck Southern California just a few hours after classes were dismissed. More than 230 school buildings were severely damaged, 70 of them flattened. Within 30 days, California’s Legislature mandated that new schools be constructed to strict earthquake safety standards. Soon after, it added a requirement that existing schools be upgraded.
In British Columbia, a coalition of parents, students and structural engineers pushed the government to evaluate and upgrade schools in earthquake-prone areas. Since 2004, the province has spent or committed $1.7 billion to retrofit 214 schools.
In Oregon, state Sen. Peter Courtney led the way.
With vivid memories of a 1993 quake near the Capitol that knocked him out of bed, Courtney was receptive when state geologists first briefed him on the Cascadia threat. In 2002, Courtney and his allies won voter approval for the state to issue bonds for school seismic upgrades. The Oregon Legislature ordered a survey that identified more than 1,100 school buildings at high risk of collapse.
Oregon has provided almost $210 million in grants to retrofit 79 school buildings. Courtney, president of the Senate since 2003, is pushing for more.
“Given what we know about this monster, you better hope it doesn’t hit in your lifetime,” he said, of a Cascadia megaquake. “Because if it does, if children die and you have not taken action as public policymakers, the liability is going to be ungodly.”
And it’s not just a matter of saving lives, he pointed out. After a major earthquake, schools will be vital as shelters and community centers. Business can’t resume until kids are back in school.
In Oregon, “It’s the state’s responsibility to make sure every school is taken care of,” Courtney said. “We’re not going to leave it up to the school districts.”
Leaving it to districts
Seattle Public Schools owns some of the oldest, most vulnerable school buildings in the state.
But it has the biggest property-tax base of any school district, and it has successfully passed every bond and capital levy it has proposed since 1996 — a haul of at least $2 billion. Since 2010, the district has earmarked $100 million from levies for seismic retrofits at more than 50 schools, while others are getting upgrades as part of larger renovations.
The Highline School District shares a border, and many of the same seismic risks, with Seattle. But it’s one of the poorer districts in King County.
While Highline has about a third as many students as Seattle, its property-tax base is less than one-tenth of its wealthier neighbor’s. Individual homeowners in Highline would have to pay about 10 times as much as those in Seattle to raise the same amount of money.
Highline’s last two attempts to issue a school bond were rejected by voters in 2014 and 2015. Its most recent successful bond election was 10 years ago.
So children continue to spend their days in Des Moines Elementary, one of the district’s oldest schools and a priority for replacement. The original building was constructed in 1924, and other than additions in subsequent decades, it has never been modernized.
“We would never put students in a building deemed to be unsafe, but making seismic and other safety improvements in our schools is a top priority,” said Catherine Carbone Rogers, a spokeswoman for the Highline School District. The district plans to propose another bond in the coming year.
The disparities are even starker in communities along the coast like Aberdeen, a faded logging hub where the Chehalis River spills into the Pacific and where grunge rocker Kurt Cobain, of Nirvana, grew up.
In 2011, structural engineers examined 12 school buildings in the city to see how they would perform in a powerful earthquake. The federally funded study found that seven buildings had a greater than 95 percent chance of extensive to complete damage.
Tom Opstad, Aberdeen’s superintendent, walked through one of those buildings, Hopkins Preschool Center, on a recent spring day, pointing out the warped floors caused by shifting soil. The 60-year-old building also houses a day care and alternative high school — and has a 99.8 percent chance of major damage in a quake.
That means chunks of debris could rain down on schoolchildren and parts or all of the sprawling complex could collapse, said Cale Ash, a structural engineer at Degenkolb who helped with the study. The entire structure could slump when shaking liquefies the loose soil, causing more damage and trapping students if doors jam shut.
Opstad is laying the groundwork for a bond, but expects it will take more than one try to gain voter approval. The district hasn’t approved a bond since 2003.
“There’s not a lot of industry here to help support taxes, like there would be in Seattle,” he said.
“We should be screaming”
Aberdeen is ringed with hills that offer tsunami escape routes for all of the district’s schools. But along parts of Washington’s outer coast, including the 25-mile-long sand spit called the Long Beach Peninsula, high ground could be out of reach for all but a few.
In the open ocean, a tsunami travels at the speed of a commercial jet. The surge slows and builds as it approaches land, muscling ashore faster than most humans can run. Scientists estimate the first waves will slam into Long Beach in as little as 20 minutes after the earthquake.
Local cross-country standout Ben Brownlee recently ran the 2-mile evacuation route from his former school, Long Beach Elementary, at The Seattle Times’ invitation.
The 17-year-old Ilwaco High student cut through the rodeo grounds and sprinted past cranberry bogs. He pulled up panting at the city’s garbage transfer station, more than 100 feet above sea level, in just under 15 minutes.
In an actual quake, it will take several minutes for those who aren’t injured to get their bearings and run. Then they’ll face an obstacle course of downed power lines, toppled trees and buckled pavement.
There’s no way teachers would be able to shepherd 250 terrified children, many with special needs, to safety in time, said Carper, the principal.
So Long Beach hopes to build a tsunami refuge on the school’s old play field. City officials landed a $2 million federal grant to design and build a berm, essentially a man-made hill of hard-packed earth reinforced with concrete and steel.
The flat-topped structure would stand about 30 feet high, placing it nearly 50 feet above sea level. It would cover three-quarters of an acre and have room for more than 850 people to escape the water — including all of Carper’s kids.
But it’s not certain the structure will be built. Cost estimates are coming in at more than $3 million, with no obvious source of funding to make up the shortfall. Even if the city comes up with the money, the berm won’t help the 170 youngsters who attend the district’s other elementary school, 10 miles up the peninsula in the town of Ocean Park.
On another vulnerable spit of land about 40 miles north of Long Beach, the Ocosta School District faced a similar threat.
When Paula Akerlund took over as superintendent in 2011, she was haunted by the devastation from Japan’s earthquake and tsunami earlier that year.
“That’s the thing that wakes you up at 3 in the morning,” she said.
The district, which includes Westport, is ailing from slumps in the fishing and timber industries. Household income is barely half the statewide median. The previous two school bonds had failed.
Working with scientists, engineers and emergency managers, Akerlund and the school board turned to the community again, with a proposal to replace the crumbling elementary school and add a gym that could double as a tsunami-evacuation structure. With room for 2,000 people on the roof, the structure could shelter all students, staff and nearby residents with room to spare.
The district and its allies sought support for the project from local residents at every opportunity: Every sports event, every concert and every school activity. A friends group set up a Facebook page. A local Realtor offered prizes for people who registered to vote.
The $13.8 million bond passed with 70 percent support from voters. The state provided an additional $2 million in matching funds. Earlier this month, the new gym opened.
State officials are eager to talk up Ocosta’s success. But the fact that so many kids across the state remain at risk from quakes and tsunamis leaves Akerlund frustrated with the Legislature, the governor and other officials who refuse to take responsibility.
“You cannot fool around with children’s safety,” she said. “All of us in education are so polite. We should be screaming: This is not ethical.”