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Districts are on their own to upgrade schools vulnerable to earthquakes

Bellingham voters have approved $17 million for a full-scale renovation of the Roeder Administration Building, one of the oldest in the Bellingham School District. That work, which includes seismic upgrades, is expected to be done by 2019 or 2020.
Bellingham voters have approved $17 million for a full-scale renovation of the Roeder Administration Building, one of the oldest in the Bellingham School District. That work, which includes seismic upgrades, is expected to be done by 2019 or 2020. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

From Sumas to Bellingham, many students attend school in older buildings that would be at risk in a major earthquake – but the state of Washington doesn’t mandate seismic evaluations or upgrades of school buildings and doesn’t keep an inventory of unsafe schools.

More than 380,000 students in Washington live in earthquake-prone areas and attend at-risk schools, according to a recent Seattle Times report. The study shows several schools – for example, the elementary, middle and high schools in Blaine – that sit on vulnerable ground and were built before 1975, but it does not account for any seismic upgrades made at those schools.

The most vulnerable types of school buildings, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are those built of unreinforced and reinforced brick or stone, concrete-frame buildings and precast concrete buildings. Wood- and steel-frame buildings are generally safer.

In Bellingham, school officials began addressing concerns of seismic safety more than a decade ago, said Ron Cowan, the district’s executive director of capital projects and school facilities.

The district hired a structural engineering firm in 2005 to inspect the district’s oldest multistory buildings, Cowan said. The firm came back with recommendations for upgrades to Lowell, Columbia and the now-retired Larabee elementary schools, along with Whatcom Middle School and the district’s Dupont Street office.

School district voters passed a bond measure in 2006 totaling $67 million. Of that, $16 million helped pay for improvements at the three elementary schools, Cowan said. The district was about to make improvements to Whatcom Middle School in 2009 when a fire left it heavily damaged. The district addressed the concerns for seismic safety when it built the new school, Cowan said.

The district’s board reallocated the rest of the funding — originally meant for upgrades at the district office — to build the new Birchwood Elementary School. That school closed in 2011 and reopened in 2014.

Another bond issue approved in 2013 will provide $17 million for a full-scale renovation of the district office, which will also address seismic concerns. That work is expected to be done by 2019 or 2020, Cowan said.

In Washington, local school districts must raise their own funds before the state contributes money, creating disparities in school safety between wealthy and poor districts.

“By law, we make kids go into buildings that may not be as safe as they should be,” said Jim Mullen, Washington’s top emergency-management official from 2004 to 2013. “Safe schools are a moral and legal obligation of the state Legislature, the governor, and every other public official.”

A magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami could kill up to 7,600 students and staff members, and cause $4 billion in damage and losses to schools, according to a 2014 study commissioned by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates almost 75 percent of coastal schools and one in five schools along the Interstate 5 corridor could suffer extensive damage, including collapse.

A seismic evaluation for every school in the state would cost between $10 million and $13 million, a federally funded study found in 2011.

In a statement, Tara Lee, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee, said: “Safety in our schools and communities is always a high priority” but that “more work needs to be done.”

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