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The Impact – School Seismic Safety Project Update

Mike McClanahan profile by Mike McClanahan

(Image Source: 2021 School Seismic Safety Project Final Report)

Unreinforced masonry buildings are risky places to be during an earthquake. Tens of thousands of K-12 students spend about five days a week, nine months a year, in buildings that might collapse during a large earthquake, according to state assessments.

Many of Washington’s older brick and concrete school buildings were not designed to withstand strong shaking. A number of years ago the state launched a School Seismic Safety Project to evaluate the problem.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, and contracted engineering firms have been involved in cataloging, rating, and prioritizing plans to address seismically vulnerable schools. 

 A preliminary report from DNR that evaluated 561 school buildings concluded that 93% of the buildings studied received a one-star safety rating, meaning they are considered at risk of widespread collapse or collapse in multiple locations, which is likely to result in injuries, entrapments and deaths. 

Four percent  of the schools that were evaluated got a two-star safety rating, meaning they are considered at risk of having an isolated collapse. 

Only 3% of the buildings received a three-star safety rating and are considered unlikely to have students or staff killed during an earthquake. 

In 2001, the 6.8 magnitude Nisqually earthquake did significant damage to roads, unreinforced brick buildings, and the state capitol campus. Although there was one death associated with a heart attack, no direct earthquake debris related deaths were reported.

That was not the case during earlier earthquakes in the Puget Sound lowlands.  The 6.5 magnitude quake in 1965 and the 7.1 magnitude quake in 1949 killed several people and injured many more, news reports from the time reference at least one student who survived critical injuries after being essentially buried in a pile of bricks and another student who was killed after being struck by falling debris from a parapet that crumbled and fell.  

Across the region, a number of adults were also reportedly killed by falling bricks from brick chimneys, walls, and other masonry structures.

Unlike funding for teacher salaries, which are considered part of the basic education costs that Washington state is obligated to cover, the state requires local residents to shoulder a significant portion of school construction costs. Tapping into the many millions of dollars the legislature appropriates for school construction is contingent on the passage of local bond or levy referendums.  

Capital Budget lead for the state superintendent’s office, Tyler Muench, joins us this week for a review of the School Seismic Safety Project and the long-running challenges associated with paying for school construction projects, particularly in small communities which don’t have access to a large tax base.

“The Department of Natural Resources identified over 800 buildings that they believed were at risk,” said  Muench. “If you’re from a small community with, say, 250 people and you need a new school, it’s going to be very hard to finance that school when you only have 250 people to tax. Think about the tax burden that would be required of each of those individuals to pay for that school. It would be in the thousands of dollars. Whereas in larger communities like the one I live in here in Olympia, the burden on the taxpayer is much less when we go out to bond for our new school construction. So those problems aren’t going to go away even if we can lower the threshold for a bond and I think that’s where the state really needs to take a look and figure out how we can help these communities pass bonds and secure their schools,” said Muench. “If we can’t prioritize children’s health and safety, I’m not sure what we should be prioritizing over that.”