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 — 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 Franz oversees, 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 — none in the Stanwood Camano School District — to assess the risk and potential cost of upgrading schools to better withstand earthquakes.
Most Stanwood-Camano schools are either new enough to have many earthquake improvements or have received seismic upgrades in recent years, said Liz Jamison, director of Capital Projects for the Stanwood Camano School District.
Two of the district’s older school’s — Stanwood Elementary and Stanwood Middle School — were recently evaluated by an engineering firm to see what seismic upgrades are needed. As a result, crews are completing upgrades to Stanwood Middle School this summer, such as adding structural improvements to better connect together walls and floors, Jamison said.
In addition, the district recently won a state grant to become a pilot school for Shake Alert, an earthquake early warning system. Jamison said the plan is to install the Shake Alert system at Stanwood Middle School and Stanwood Elementary.
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 in the state 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.
Based on the average estimated upgrade cost of about $1.5 to $2.75 million, the state could be looking at over $6 billion in 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 seismic 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.
Washington’s 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.
Pair of earthquakes rattle region Friday
Two earthquakes shook the area early Friday morning. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries. The U.S. Geological Survey reports that a 4.6 magnitude earthquake rattled the Three Lakes area near Snohomish. That was followed minutes later by a 3.5 magnitude aftershock near Monroe. The initial jolt was recorded at 2:51 a.m. Friday.
David Caruso, a USGS geophysicist, told The Seattle Times the Washington state quake was due to a thrust fault, in which one side of a fault pushed upward relative to its opposite side. Such quakes are common in the Cascade Mountain range. Caruso said the Northwest quake had no connection to the recent earthquakes in California.
Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management said 911 dispatch received 403 calls from 2-4 a.m. Friday — most about the earthquake. However, officials said to only call 911 for emergencies, not to tie up the phone lines to ask “did an earthquake just happen?”
Learn about the area’s earthquakes & faults
Saturday, July 20, Camano Preparedness Group will present “Earthquakes & the NW Faults,” a free, public home preparedness program, 7-8 p.m. in the Camano Historic Schoolhouse, 993 Orchid Road, Camano Island.
Learn how the Earth works, what makes it shake and the different kinds of earthquakes. Also hear what to expect when a large earthquake occurs in our area — how soon to expect services to resume and how to prepare. Free.