Totem Middle School has weathered the years with consistency.

Keri Lindsay, the principal of the Marysville school, followed in her parents’ footsteps as a proud Thunderbird. Her mother attended Totem in the 1960s and her father was the superintendent of construction during the facility’s last remodel in the 1980s.

Mike Wray, a special education teacher, also has been with the school for decades. He remembers when the cornerstone was placed in the building that houses science labs and classrooms in 1967.

Neither Wray nor Lindsey could say when the school’s oldest buildings were constructed, though they guess that some could be from as far back as the 1930s.

The music building, the school’s most recent construction project, was built by Lindsey’s father in 1985, and Totem Middle hasn’t had a renovation since. And its cinder block buildings are among hundreds across Washington state that are likely to suffer major damage and cause severe injury in the event of an earthquake, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

That could possibly be prevented should a bill now on Gov. Jay Inslee desk get his signature.

Passed by the Legislature this month, Senate Bill 5933 calls for a historic investment in the seismic safety of Washington’s public schools. If signed into law, the bipartisan bill will codify several statutes to help establish and fund a school seismic retrofit grant program.

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Washington has the second largest population at risk from significant earthquake damage, yet the state trails behind California, Oregon, and British Columbia in its natural disaster preparedness, particularly when it comes to schools, according to geologists, engineers, and lawmakers.  

The new law would formally establish an existing school seismic safety committee to help the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) assess, plan and implement retrofits, and to advise the office on matters of school seismic safety.

So far, the committee has assessed the geologic risk of more than 560 schools statewide, helping OSPI prioritize the most urgent of these seismic retrofit projects. The committee is made up of seismologists, geologists, engineers from many fields, and school management professionals working together to make scientific determinations and plan retrofit projects.

OSPI expects it would cost between $60 million to $73 million per year over a 10-year period to fund two planning grants and two construction projects each year. In the final version of the 2022 supplemental budget passed Thursday, OSPI was awarded $100 million — down from the roughly $500 million included in the Senate’s original proposal — to implement the retrofits. The budget notes an additional $400 million in projected costs for future two-year budget cycles.

“I think delivering $100 million and consistently doing that every couple of years is a realistic way to do this,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal. “We’ll just keep coming back every budget cycle asking for the next phase.”

“I think the fact that the bill was passed and it’s on its way to the governor [means] that both chambers realize the importance of doing this and doing it in a way that addresses those certainly very high risk and high risk schools at this point,” said Rep. Steve Tharinger (D-Port Townsend), chair of the House Capital Budget Committee.

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Some of the bill’s most ardent supporters, however, are calling for a larger investment.

“I don’t think that the powers that be in Olympia fully appreciate that this is the biggest school construction the state has had,” said Jim Buck, a former state representative who, with his wife, Donna, has embarked on an advocacy campaign, emailing over 4,000 school districts, lawmakers, and educators about the seismic risks in their regions.

Advocates like the Bucks, who live in Joyce, Clallam County, are frustrated by a last-minute amendment to the bill that removed funding allocated to unfinished projects like the seismically notorious Pacific Beach Elementary School. One of the most geologically unsafe schools in the state, the Pacific Beach project was halted after liquefiable soils were discovered underneath the school’s gym, ballooning retrofit costs to $6 million for a school also at risk in a tsunami inundation zone. Pacific Beach Elementary must now vie for funding with four other “very high” seismic risk schools, including Totem Middle School.

In 2017, the Legislature commissioned the Department of Natural Resources to survey the seismic risks of school buildings across Washington, and in 2021 the department released its report. Of 561 buildings assessed, 93% earned a one-star safety rating out of five. Just 4% of buildings have two-star ratings, and 3% earned three stars. The report also notes that after a major quake, most school buildings surveyed would be unsafe to occupy and roughly one-half will be damaged beyond repair.

The report also found that 30 school campuses, serving more than 10,000 students, are located in tsunami inundation zones. However, the bill specifies that schools could be eligible for more than just a retrofit, especially in particularly vulnerable areas along the coast and Olympic Peninsula.

“In my conversations with districts, I would say don’t pursue the retrofit, pursue the new school construction funding and bring your school’s building up to code with modern health codes, modern energy code, and modern seismic codes,” said Tyler Muench, OSPI’s policy and outreach coordinator.

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“Best case scenario, I mean, we’re talking about 89% of buildings on the peninsula were built before the construction of modern seismic codes. It’s not a good number,” said Muench, testifying in support of the bill on Feb. 25. “We don’t want to waste money on a retrofit when the building really needs to be removed.”

Quake dangers in Puget Sound

When people talk about the “big one” in reference to Washington earthquakes, they’re usually referring to what geologists have dubbed the Cascadia megaquake, a seismic event on par with the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in 2011 in the Tōhoku region of Japan. According to Harold Tobin, head of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network at the University of Washington, there is a 14% to 15% chance of this type of quake occurring in the next 50 years. The last event of this magnitude occurred in 1700 and was felt by Indigenous communities from Vancouver Island to Northern California, creating a tsunami that swamped Japanese villages.

“It’s not overdue, but the potential for such an earthquake to happen is here. But ‘here’ could be anything from tomorrow to several hundred years from now,” said Tobin, who has been at the seismic network since 2018.

Much more likely is a repeat of the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, a magnitude 6.8 that shifted the unreinforced masonry of the Capitol dome about three inches and cracked brick facades across Puget Sound. A report by the University of Washington found that 75 out of 96 Seattle schools reported damage in the earthquake.

Wray, the Totem Middle School teacher who was in the classroom the morning of Feb. 28, 2001, remembers the ground rolling in waves, making the overhead lights rattle and telephone poles sway outside the window.

“The kids’ eyes got really big and they dropped to the floor and got under the desks and tables,” said Wray. “They looked panicked, and I was a little panicked, going like ‘Okay, is it rolling in?’ It was really weird.”

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According to Tobin, the Nisqually quake occurred about 40 miles beneath the Earth’s surface, in the subducting Juan de Fuca plate that was once an ancient seafloor. Other deep slab quakes occurred in 1949 and 1965, and seismologists estimate an 85% chance that there will be another Nisqually-style earthquake in the next 50 years.

Modern seismic building codes for new construction projects were adopted in 1998 and are updated every four years, most recently in 2018. But Washington has no laws requiring seismic evaluations in older structures, and as a result, millions of people across the state live, work, and learn in buildings that may not survive Washington’s next quake.

“If we think it’s important for adults to work in safe buildings, don’t we think we owe it to our children to be able to learn in safe buildings?” said Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, (D-Seattle), at a public hearing on February 25.

Priority list sent to governor

According to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. David Frockt (D-Seattle), the bill would create a prioritization process allowing public officials to systematically upgrade the state’s school buildings according to specified criteria, working their way down from the most at-risk buildings.

OSPI and the advisory committee must prioritize projects that would have the greatest improvement in school facilities in districts with the most limited financial capacity in order to provide support to the largest possible number of students. It must also prioritize school districts with the most significant building deficiencies and the greatest seismic risks as determined by the most recent geologic data and engineering assessments, such as USGS risk maps and the expected velocity of ground movement at a given location.

Every year, the superintendent of public instruction would submit the prioritized list to the governor, and while the governor and the superintendent would retain the budgetary authority of appropriations, the projects must be funded in the order specified by OSPI with input from the advisory committee. The first prioritization list will be out this summer, according to Reykdal.

In Seattle, where voter-approved bonds keep school remodel projects well funded, not a single building made it onto OSPI’s priority list. Across the state, lower income school districts have buildings which haven’t been remodeled in decades.

“We don’t know when the earthquake is coming,” said Tobin, the seismologist from UW. “But that means that continuous work to improve the situation until whenever it comes, is money well invested in our state.”