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School Buildings Could Be Safer, More Earthquake Resilient

“Are my children safe?” 

It’s a thought that crosses the mind of Eugene School District 4J parent Constance Van Flandern when she drops her kids off at school. 

“Nobody wants to talk about children dying,” Van Flandern notes, but with a massive earthquake predicted to hit Oregon, she says the time has come to have a community conversation about the earthquake resilience of Eugene’s schools.

As of now, information is limited, and parents whose children attend these schools find the ambiguity troubling. Some call for better planning and more vision on the part of local school districts, pointing to other districts around the state like the Beaverton School District near Portland, which has taken steps toward creating schools that double as emergency shelters, built to the highest standards. 

When the Cascadia Subduction Zone triggers a mega-earthquake, parents want to know that school buildings will not collapse and, ideally, whether they could serve as shelters in the aftermath.

Every year, the Oregon Department of Education issues each Oregon school district a report card, which purports to give information on earthquake resilience. On last year’s report card for Eugene School District 4J, under the heading “seismic safety rating,” the report offers a link that promises to provide a “detailed report for each school.”

Clicking the link, however, leads to a hodgepodge of information, short on detail and confusing to piece together. From the reports alone, it’s difficult to discern which schools are earthquake safe, which ones aren’t and which will withstand the inevitable Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, which has a 15 to 20 percent likelihood of hitting Oregon in the next 50 years, according to the latest research from Oregon State University. 

Van Flandern, whose daughter goes to South Eugene High School, says she worries about the timeline and scope of 4J’s seismic planning.

“We’re working on borrowed time,” Van Flandern says. “The earthquake could happen right now.”

According to Ben Brantley, 4J’s facilities manager, all schools in the 4J system were updated in the mid-1990s and early 2000s to meet the seismic code of that era. Brantley says occupants should be able to safely exit the building in the event of a moderate earthquake. 

A 2007 study by the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) found that six 4J schools had a high risk of collapsing in a large-scale earthquake. The assessment used rapid visual screening to grade risk and did not factor recent upgrades into its scores.

“Most of the district’s schools also have had additional retrofitting to limit structural damage and make it more likely that the facility could be repaired for continued use after a moderate earthquake,” Brantley adds.

What “moderate” means is up for interpretation, but scientists do know that the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a giant fault along the West Coast of the United States, has produced 9.0 magnitude earthquakes in the past, and it will happen again. The last earthquake occurred in 1700, and the next could happen at any time. 

According to the Oregon Resilience Plan, published in 2013, Oregon strives to have schools up and running a month after the earthquake hits. It’s unclear if 4J’s buildings will meet that goal.

Kari Parsons, a member of the parent council at Edison Elementary School, says she’d like to see 4J adopt a comprehensive plan related to earthquake preparation, with more clearly stated information on the safety level of each building in the event of a large earthquake. 

“There needs to be some visionary, solution-oriented planning,” she says.

While schools aren’t required by law to be built to Category IV, the standard of hospitals and fire stations, it’s certainly an option. 4J’s new schools are built to Category III with the standards required by the International Building Code — these standards “allow occupants to safely evacuate the building and reduce damage to the building, and increase the likelihood it would be able to continue to function after an earthquake,” Brantley says. 

But when schools are built to the highest level of resiliency, they can serve the community as emergency shelters.

According to Michelle Taylor of the American Red Cross, Eugene has 50 buildings that could serve as potential shelters after a mega-earthquake. Taylor says the Red Cross doesn’t distribute the list because the volunteer-based organization can’t guarantee that all shelters will survive an emergency event like an earthquake.

“We use a lot of churches and a lot of schools, but in a list of 10, we might have two that are available for shelter,” Taylor says. “We don’t know which shelters will actually be standing or habitable after a catastrophic earthquake.”

Once the earthquake happens, Taylor explains, the Red Cross will survey shelter sites and determine which ones are still safe to inhabit.

Kent Yu, a Portland-based structural engineer and leader in community resilience planning, says that school buildings have the potential to serve as excellent emergency shelters after the mega-earthquake, should communities choose to build their schools with resilience and recovery in mind. 

He recently co-authored a paper that looked at the Beaverton School District and its leadership in planning to build seven new schools “to exceed building code requirements in certain critical aspects to better support the community as resource centers and emergency shelters.”

Schools are uniquely positioned to serve as shelters due to their even distribution throughout neighborhoods and because they often have large, open spaces like cafeterias and gymnasiums that easily convert to sleeping areas.

“It can be so expensive to retrofit buildings that owners of businesses are gravitating toward these minimum levels of safety to assure people get out of the building, but then you have to deal with the building afterwards,” explains Chris Poland, a consulting engineer and resiliency expert who worked with the Beaverton School District in its planning. “Schools are a special building cluster because, from a recovery standpoint, getting children back in school so families start to feel settled is very important.” 

The more resilient the school building, the more likely it is to be open soon after the mega-quake and even serve as a shelter in the aftermath of the disaster. 

In Beaverton’s case, the district is using a $680 million bond to design its new schools to double as emergency shelters and be functional shortly after the earthquake happens. Its new high school, costing $98 million, is designed with an emergency generator, as well as plumbing and electric wiring constructed with emergency services in mind. The features cost the district $900,000, only a fraction of the total cost of the project. 

Yu suggests that communities have conversations about school resilience before putting bond measures to vote — additional resilience features can bolster the usefulness of an already important school building.

“It becomes an equity piece and a community asset,” Yu says.

But first, the conversation needs to happen.

“The question your readers need to ask themselves is: ‘Is it sufficient to know that we have minimum safety or do we want to upgrade our buildings so we can get them up to service in a month, or better, so they can serve as shelters?’” Poland tells EW.

According to 4J’s long-term facilities plan, another bond measure could emerge in 2018 or 2019. The plan proposes to replace or completely renovate North Eugene High School and Camas Ridge Elementary. It also looks at renovating Edison Elementary, one of the oldest and most historic schools in the district, as well as a yet-to-be-determined additional elementary school. 

The bond measure could be 4J’s chance to incorporate seismic resilience into its planning.

For parents like Van Flandern and Parsons, the knowledge that disaster could strike at any time is frightening.   

“When parents are getting together, they’re doing calculations of the likelihood their kids will be in school when the earthquake hits,” Parsons says.

Van Flandern says she wants to see schools in Oregon pursuing federal funds for resilience planning.

“It’s very small-minded thinking to be throwing this back on taxpayers,” Van Flandern says. “This is a statewide problem that needs immediate attention.”

But, she says, it doesn’t help anyone to sweep the issue under the rug. “We should be having these conversations all the time,” she adds.