Schools, vulnerable buildings focus of emergency preparedness talk

Inslee hears update from community leaders, emergency preparedness experts during recent meeting

Ariana Wood, Results Washington senior performance adviser, facilitates the group discussion in March during a meeting about building earthquake resiliency in the state. (Results Washington photo)

Washington has the second highest earthquake risk in the United States, and a Cascadia Subduction Zone quake — with a potential to reach a magnitude of 9.0 — is due to strike again.

As state leaders work to make our communities more resilient to major earthquakes, many have focused on improvements to public school buildings, especially along the coast where an earthquake-triggered tsunami could pose even more danger to schoolchildren.

“As a school district, we really do need to make some improvements,” Aberdeen School District Superintendent Alicia Henderson said.

The school district is working to make seismic upgrades to Stevens Elementary School. The school, attended by about 500 students, was built in 1954 and last renovated in 1976.

Alicia Henderson, superintendent of the Aberdeen School District, talks about school seismic safety at a recent Results Washington meeting with Gov. Jay Inslee. (Results Washington photo)

Henderson gave her report during a recent Results Washington meeting with Gov. Jay Inslee that focused on seismic safety in Washington schools and other vulnerable buildings. More than 20 leaders and emergency preparedness experts from around the state attended the meeting.

Current studies show that Grays Harbor communities, including Aberdeen, face the highest risk statewide of experiencing a tsunami following a major seismic event.

Stevens Elementary School is near the mouth of the Chehalis River, which feeds into Grays Harbor. The school’s location poses a huge logistical challenge in getting every student evacuated to safety in the event of a tsunami, Henderson said.

“It is definitely in a precarious position with regard to not only tsunami inundation, but also the distance for evacuation of students to get to higher ground,” she said.

Preparing communities

The Cascadia Subduction Zone separates the Juan de Fuca and North America tectonic plates. It could become seismically active without warning and sits within 100 miles of the Washington coastline, leaving students and teachers, especially those in older unreinforced masonry buildings, at risk should a quake occur.

A major Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake strikes every 200 to 600 years, and the last rupture of this fault line occurred 318 years ago.

In addition to the Cascadia Subduction Zone, Washington is crisscrossed with active crustal faults with the ability to do tremendous damage at a potential impact of $49 billion in total economic losses. One of the largest quakes in recent history, the Nisqually earthquake, injured about 400 people and produced some $2 billion in damages 17 years ago.

Map of fault lines throughout Washington. (Washington State Department of Natural Resources image)

In 2016, Inslee established the Resilient Washington Subcabinet to better prepare the state for natural disasters, including earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, drought, storms and flooding.

Funding to accomplish schools’ structural safety goals can be a challenge to acquire, so a large portion of the governor’s meeting was dedicated to finding solutions to increasing seismic safety in older buildings and schools. The number of schools in need of retrofitting is significant, with at least four in the Aberdeen School District alone.

The Aberdeen district is $27 million short of fully funding building upgrades to instructional sites. The medium household income in Aberdeen is $19,000 less than the state average, making it tough to pass a construction bond to retrofit those buildings.

(Washington State Department of Natural Resources image)

Finding solutions

The Results Washington discussion generated several ideas, including rethinking growth management strategies, providing tax incentives to building owners to retrofit historic and unreinforced masonry buildings — many of which are retail shops in Main Street districts or affordable housing units.

“We know The Big One is somewhere in our future. We just don’t know when,” Inslee said. “Although we cannot prevent or predict earthquakes, we can be better prepared to respond and recover quickly when these natural disasters occur, and we can invest in strengthening our buildings.”

Inslee committed his Results Washington team to develop a set of unique performance measures related to Washington’s resiliency that will continually monitor the progress of seismic safety improvement efforts. He closed the meeting by pushing state leaders to focus on the short-term goal of prioritizing the most vulnerable schools, and the long-term goal of assessing every single school in the state for safety.

“When we build schools that are up to our current seismic standards, we know we’re providing safer schools for our kids,” Inslee said.

The governor also highlighted some of the work ahead to increase seismic safety throughout the state.

Currently funded is a $1.2 million capital budget project to assess nearly 220 of the highest risk Washington school buildings and $200,000 to create an inventory of all unreinforced masonry buildings. The City of Seattle is ahead of the curve on this effort, already inventorying all unreinforced masonry buildings in the city.

Washingtonians can learn more about staying safe during an earthquake and preparing for a worst-case scenario seismic event by visiting Washington Emergency Management’s emergency preparedness page.