WA would invest millions to retrofit schools for earthquakes under a bill awaiting Inslee’s signature

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Totem Middle School has gone through the years with consistency.

Marysville School Principal Keri Lindsey has followed in her parents’ footsteps as a proud Thunderbird. Her mother attended Totem in the 1960s, and her father was the construction superintendent when the facility was last renovated in the 1980s.

Mike Wray, a special education teacher, has also worked at the school for decades. He remembers laying the cornerstone of the building that houses the science labs and classrooms in 1967.

Neither Wray nor Lindsey could say when the school’s oldest buildings were built, although they speculate some may date back to the 1930s.

The Music Building, the school’s most recent construction project, was built by Lindsey’s father in 1985, and Totem Middle has not been renovated since. And his cinder block buildings are among hundreds of buildings in Washington state that could sustain significant damage and cause serious injury in the event of an earthquake, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

That could possibly be avoided if a bill currently on Governor Jay Inslee’s desk gets his signature.

Passed by the Legislature this month, Senate Bill 5933 calls for a historic investment in the seismic safety of Washington public schools. If signed into law, the bipartisan bill would codify several laws to help establish and fund a school earthquake retrofit grant program.

Washington state is second most at risk from earthquakes, geologists, engineers and lawmakers say, but state trails California, Oregon and British Columbia in its preparedness for natural disasters, particularly with regard to schools.

The new law would formally create an existing school earthquake safety committee to help the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) evaluate, plan, and implement renovations, and advise the office on school earthquake safety issues.

So far, the committee has assessed the geohazard of more than 560 schools statewide, helping OSPI prioritize the most urgent seismic retrofit projects. The committee is made up of seismologists, geologists, engineers from many fields, and school management professionals who work together to make scientific decisions and plan renovation projects.

OSPI projects that it would cost between $60 million and $73 million per year over a 10-year period to fund two planning grants and two construction projects each year. In the final version of the 2022 Supplementary Budget passed Thursday, OSPI was given $100 million — up from about $500 million included in the original Senate proposal — to implement the renovations. The budget notes an additional $400 million in projected costs for future two-year budget cycles.

“I think providing $100 million and doing it consistently every two years is a realistic way to do that,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said. “We will continue to come back each budget cycle to ask for the next phase.”

“I think the fact that the bill has passed and is on its way to Governor [means] that both chambers realize the importance of doing this and doing it in a way that certainly speaks to these very high-risk, high-risk schools at this point,” said Rep. Steve Tharinger (D-Port Townsend), chairman of the House Budget Capital Committee.

Some of the bill’s staunchest supporters, however, are calling for a bigger investment.

“I don’t think the powers that be at Olympia fully appreciate that this is the biggest school building the state has had,” said Jim Buck, a former state official who, with his wife, Donna, embarked on an advocacy campaign. , emailing more than 4,000 school districts, legislators and educators about earthquake risk in their areas.

Defenders like the Bucks, who live in Joyce, Clallam County, are frustrated by a last-minute amendment to the bill that cut funding for unfinished projects like the infamous Pacific Beach Elementary School. One of the most geologically dangerous schools in the state, the Pacific Beach project was halted after liquefiable soils were discovered under the school’s gymnasium, driving up renovation costs to $6 million for a school also threatened in an area flooded by the tsunami. Pacific Beach Elementary must now compete for funding with four other “very high” earthquake risk schools, including Totem Middle School.

In 2017, the Legislature appointed the Department of Natural Resources to investigate the seismic hazards of school buildings in Washington, and in 2021 the department released its report. Of 561 buildings assessed, 93% received a safety rating of one out of five stars. Only 4% of the buildings are classified two stars and 3% obtained three stars. The report also notes that after a major earthquake, most of the school buildings studied would be unsafe to occupy and about half would be damaged beyond repair.

The Dreport also found that 30 school campuses, serving more than 10,000 students, are located in areas flooded by the tsunami. However, the bill clarifies that schools could be eligible for more than just refurbishment, particularly in particularly vulnerable areas along the coast and the Olympic Peninsula.

“In my conversations with districts, I would say don’t pursue renovations, pursue funding for new school construction, and bring your school building up to modern health codes, modern energy code, and modern seismic codes,” said Tyler Muench, OSPI Policy and Outreach Coordinator.

“In the best-case scenario, I mean, we’re talking about 89% of the buildings on the peninsula were built before modern seismic codes were built. It’s not a good number,” Muench said, testifying in support of the bill on Feb. 25. “We don’t want to waste money on a renovation when the building really needs to be demolished.

Earthquake Dangers in Puget Sound

When people talk about the “big” in reference to the Washington earthquakes, they’re usually referring to what geologists have dubbed the Cascadia Megaquake, a seismic event comparable to the 2011 9.0 earthquake and tsunami. in the Tohoku region of Japan. According to Harold Tobin, head of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network at the University of Washington, there is a 14 to 15 percent chance of this type of earthquake occurring within the next 50 years. The last event of this magnitude occurred in 1700 and was felt by Indigenous communities from Vancouver Island to Northern California, creating a tsunami that swept through Japanese villages.

“It’s not too late, but the potential for such an earthquake to occur is there. But ‘here’ could be anything from tomorrow to several hundred years,” said Tobin, who has worked at the seismic network since 2018.

Much more likely is a repeat of the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, a 6.8 on the Richter scale that moved the unreinforced masonry of the Capitol dome about three inches and cracked brick facades across Puget Sound. A University of Washington report found that 75 of Seattle’s 96 schools reported damage from the earthquake.

Wray, the Totem Middle School teacher who was in class on the morning of Feb. 28, 2001, recalls the ground rolling in waves, rattling ceiling lights and swinging telephone poles in front of the window.

“The kids’ eyes got really big and they fell to the floor and got under desks and tables,” Wray said. “They looked freaked out, and I was a little freaked out, going ‘Okay, are you rolling?’ It was really weird.”

According to Tobin, the Nisqually earthquake occurred about 40 miles below the Earth’s surface, in the subduction Juan de Fuca plate it was once an ancient seabed. Other deep earthquakes occurred in 1949 and 1965, and seismologists estimate an 85% chance that there will be another Nisqually-style earthquake within the next 50 years.

Modern seismic building codes for new construction projects were adopted in 1998 and are updated every four years, most recently in 2018. But Washington has no laws requiring seismic assessments in older structures. and, as a result, millions of people across the state live, work. , and learn in buildings that may not survive the next Washington earthquake.

“If we think it’s important for adults to work in safe buildings, don’t we think we owe it to our children to be able to learn in safe buildings? said Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, (D-Seattle), during a Feb. 25 public hearing.

Priority list sent to Governor

According to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. David Frockt (D-Seattle), the bill would create a prioritization process for public officials to systematically upgrade state school buildings according to specified criteria, stepping down buildings most at risk.

OSPI and the advisory committee should prioritize projects that would most improve school facilities in districts with the most limited financial capacity in order to support as many students as possible. It should also prioritize school districts with the greatest construction defects and greatest seismic hazards, as determined by the most recent geological data and engineering assessments, such as USGS hazard maps. and the expected speed of ground motion at a given location.

Each year, the Superintendent of Public Instruction would submit the list of priorities to the Governor, and while the Governor and Superintendent retain budgetary authority for appropriations, projects must be funded in the order specified by OSPI with the input from the advisory committee. The first list of priorities will be released this summer, according to Reykdal.

In Seattle, where voter-approved bonds keep funding for school renovation projects going, not a single building is on OSPI’s priority list. Across the state, low-income school districts have buildings that haven’t been renovated in decades.

“We don’t know when the earthquake is coming,” said Tobin, the UW seismologist. “But it means the continued work to improve the situation until it happens is money well invested in our state.”

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