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Washington, Oregon Striving To Make Schools Earthquake Safe

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network
Students at Southworth Elementary in Yelm, Washington, jump in unison to generate seismic waves.

Making school buildings strong enough to withstand a major earthquake is one of the highest priorities for emergency planners on the West Coast. Washington state is taking small steps to identify the most vulnerable schools, while Oregon is actually spending to fix things.

Dozens of fifth graders at Southworth Elementary School in Yelm, Washington, were happy to help professional geologists assess their school's seismic safety.

They repeatedly jumped in unison to make the ground vibrate and generate seismic data about the local soil Wednesday. This is one of 15 schools in the Yelm, Tumwater and North Thurston districts to be evaluated this fall, thanks to a federal grant along with donated time from structural engineers.

That leaves between 1,500 to 2,000 more schools to go says Washington Emergency Management’s Earthquake, Tsunami, and Volcano Programs Manager John Schelling.

"You've got to start with the screening and figure out what is vulnerable -- what is at risk -- so you can make those informed decisions about where to invest resources in the most cost-efficient and effective way possible,” he said.

California, Oregon and British Columbia are way ahead of Washington state in screening all of their schools. This year, the Oregon Legislature even allocated $175 million to make seismic upgrades to vulnerable public school and university buildings.

"I'm very encouraged with the progress that we're making on seismic mitigation of schools," said Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries geotechnical engineer Yumei Wang. "You have top leadership that has recognized that this is a big problem that is going to take a significant public investment and they put the money where their mouth is."

School seismic safety assessments were identified in 2012 as the first "priority action" in a multi-agency strategic plan titled "Resilient Washington State," but funding has been hard to extract from the Washington Legislature since then.

Oregon's Department of Geology and Mineral Industries oversaw seismic safety assessments for 2,182 K-12 school buildings between 2005-07 using the "Rapid Visual Screening" process. This autumn's school seismic assessments in Thurston County, Washington, have utilized a more rigorous process to identify deficiencies.

Cale Ash of Degenkolb Engineers in Seattle managed the Thurston County project with volunteer assistance from the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute and Structural Engineers Society of Washington.

"We're just now getting some of those results coming in," Ash said on Wednesday. "As you can expect, the buildings have a range of age and construction types, so the results kind of track that. The older buildings maybe have more issues that concern us versus the newer buildings."

"In general, wood buildings perform better in earthquakes than building types like older unreinforced masonry. Those are really the ones that we worry about the most," he added.

When there is money to retrofit a vulnerable building, common fixes include strengthening exterior walls and reinforcing junctures between floors or ceilings and those walls. Ash said another frequently recommended safety enhancement is to strap down tippy furnishings such as bookshelves, TVs and computers.

Even with the head start Oregon has, officials there are planning on a long slog to make all schools and critical public buildings quake safe -- on the order of 30 years.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.