An analysis of about 5% of the 4,444 public school buildings across Washington suggests that making those buildings safe during an earthquake could cost billions.
But the study released July 2 by the state Department of Natural Resources and Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, concludes it would be less expensive to complete upgrades than to repair damage after an earthquake.
The primary concern for the state — and particularly Western Washington, including Skagit County — is the potential for a large-scale earthquake from what’s called the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the coast. Experts say the region is overdue for a potential magnitude-9 earthquake from that fault that could strike any time.
Earthquakes can also occur along faults beneath the state, such as was seen with the Nisqually Earthquake in 2001.
“It’s a question of when, not if, the next earthquake will hit,” state Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said in a news release. “We need to be vigilant and take steps now to help keep our kids safe.”
The state Legislature in 2017 directed Natural Resources, which is overseen by Franz, to study the risk of earthquakes to public schools.
The study is phase one of the “Washington state School Seismic Safety Project.” It looked at 222 of the state’s school buildings, including nine in Skagit County, to assess the risk and potential cost of upgrading schools to better withstand earthquakes.
Schools are of concern because K-12 students spend much of their time inside those walls, and many aging school buildings preceded statewide building codes adopted in 1975.
“It is our hope that the results of this study can spawn future investment in resilience planning, recommendations for policy changes, and ultimately funding to seismically upgrade all Washington schools to improve their seismic safety,” the report states.
The results from the phase one study, conducted from 2017-2019, suggest about 70% of schools are at risk of earthquakes.
A closer look at 15 schools found that costs to retrofit schools to withstand earthquakes can vary significantly, from $63,000 to $5 million in upgrades.
The Mount Vernon School District’s former Lincoln Elementary School building, which now houses staff instead of students, came in on the higher end.
Based on the average estimated upgrade cost of about $1.5 to $2.75 million, the state could be looking at over $6 billions dollars worth of upgrades. Still, according to the report, compiled by engineering firm Reid Middleton Inc., it could cost about five times as much to rebuild after an earthquake hits.
“The overall cost to seismically upgrade the state’s most vulnerable buildings is no doubt staggering,” the report states. “However, the cost and time to rebuild a multitude of school buildings at the same time, following a Cascadia-type earthquake event ... could be an overwhelming obstacle in Washington state’s post-disaster recovery.”
The study acknowledges that school districts already face many difficult spending decisions and urges the Legislature to create grant programs specifically for seismic upgrades and policy to incorporate seismic upgrades into other remodeling projects.
“This is a problem that may require a decade or two of action, policy creation, refinement, and funding to successfully complete,” the report states.
In the meantime, the authors suggest prioritizing upgrades to buildings deemed most at risk: Those built with unreinforced masonry and non-ductile concrete.
Of the nine schools evaluated in Skagit County, only the buildings built in 1921 that are today used for the La Conner High School auditorium and La Conner Middle School cafeteria are those types of structures, according to Reid Middleton documents.
The Washington state School Seismic Safety Project is continuing this year, with $2.2 million the Legislature provided to Natural Resources for a second two-year assessment.
The state agency and OSPI are currently determining which schools to include in the next study.
Superintendents of local school districts including Burlington-Edison, Concrete and Conway said their staff are reviewing the report to determine what it may tell them about their own facilities.
Mount Vernon Superintendent Carl Bruner said with the closure of Lincoln Elementary School last year, the district’s primary concern for seismic upgrades moves to the historic Old Main at Mount Vernon High School. Work on that building — an unreinforced masonry structure built in 1922 — is already planned to begin in spring 2020, he said, using money from the district’s 2016 bond.
Burlington-Edison School District Superintendent Laurel Browning said her district is working to prepare for earthquakes and other potential emergencies and has had staff attend Federal Emergency Management Administration and Skagit County Department of Emergency Management meetings on the subject.
“Student and staff safety are always our highest priority,” she said, adding that the district may consider hiring an engineering firm to complete a study or inspection of its facilities independently of the state.