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Oregon Schools Still At Risk Of Collapse In Mega Quake

If you hadn’t heard about the Cascadia Subduction Zone mega earthquake before now, the recent New Yorker article titled “The Really Big One” has probably popped up on your social media feed enough times to draw your attention.

Some people have known for decades about the predicted 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami threatening to devastate the Oregon Coast and beyond. 

Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney is one of those people. He’s worked for years in the Oregon Legislature to fund seismic retrofitting for public school buildings to make them able to withstand large-scale quakes. Now it’s up to school districts, including those in Lane County, to apply for money and ensure that school buildings don’t collapse on top of students and teachers when the earthquake hits, he says.

Courtney says Oregon is “way, way behind” in retrofitting old school buildings, and only 37 schools have received grant money for seismic upgrades. Last year, state agency Business Oregon received 46 applications for grant money but could only afford to award $15 million to 13 school buildings across the state.

This legislative session, lawmakers set aside $175 million to retrofit old school buildings in Oregon so that they are prepared to withstand a high-magnitude earthquake. This money is disbursed through the Seismic Rehabilitation Grant Program, which started in 2009 but has only provided $15 million for schools per session until this year.

“We’re finally getting the Legislature to pay attention,” Courtney says. “If the school districts will react to this, we can make these buildings safe for kids. I just can’t believe it’s taken this long.”

In 2005, the Oregon Legislature commissioned the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries to survey Oregon public school buildings to determine their risk of collapse in a high-magnitude earthquake. 

The study found that of the 2,018 K-12 buildings surveyed, 12 percent had a very high risk of collapse, while 35 percent had a greater than 10-percent likelihood of collapsing.

Courtney says he’s frustrated about the lack of response he’s witnessed over making school buildings safe for children, and he hopes this recent uptick in funding indicates a greater public interest in preparing for a large-scale quake.

“I can’t believe parents are not out in droves saying, ‘We are not going to permit our kids to go to these schools anymore until they are safe,’” he says. 

In 2013, the Springfield School District applied for and received a $255,549 grant from the Seismic Rehabilitation Grant Program for Walterville Elementary School, which was considered at very high risk of collapse. 

According to Springfield Superintendent Sue Rieke-Smith, other schools in Springfield were deemed at low risk of collapse. However, she says, “knowing that we have these additional dollars available, we will of course be looking at opportunities for other improvements to our schools to make them even safer.”

Kerry Delf of Eugene School District 4J says that because 4J made seismic adjustments to school buildings in the 1990s, the district is not planning to pursue grants and will continue to make seismic improvements when other maintenance occurs.

Pat McGillivray, spokesperson for the Bethel School District, says Bethel has not previously applied for seismic rehabilitation grants, but the district recently replaced its two oldest elementary schools with new structures that are built to current seismic codes.

McGillivray says that parts of Willamette High School, Shasta Middle School and Irving Elementary School were rated at high risk of collapse, while Bethel’s eight other schools fell into a range of low to moderate risk. He adds that Bethel will consider applying for grants, depending on the eligibility requirements and method of application.

 “This is going to be the greatest natural disaster to hit our state, and the children are probably more vulnerable to this than anything else imaginable,” Sen. Courtney says. “Kids rely on us to make decisions for them. Today, the children of Oregon are totally vulnerable because of what the adults are not doing.”